People come to the Cockrell Butterfly Center to see butterflies, but are often equally entranced by the lush plants that provide the setting. The plant life has multiple functions. One, since most of the butterflies we display in the center are from tropical rainforests, we try to duplicate their native environment and conditions to make them feel at home (and hopefully to maximize their short lifespans).
Warszewiczia coccinea growing
Second, some of the flowering plants provide food (nectar) for the butterflies. And third, we try to find plants that are interesting and attractive to our human visitors. We keep all these things in mind when selecting a plant for the exhibit.
One plant in particular that fills all our criteria is the Rainforest Flame Tree, or Warszewiczia coccinea, as it is known botanically.
This member of the coffee family is native to Central and South America and the West Indies. It is the national tree of Trinidad (another common name for this tree is “Pride of Trinidad.”) It usually grows to around 25 feet tall, but can reach greater heights in different growing conditions. In Costa Rica, this tree is considered a canopy tree and can reach 50 feet.
The leaves of the tree are somewhat corrugated and are located oppositely on the stem. But the best thing about it are the showy flowering branches. They are located on the end of a branch and are placed at the nodes.
Each flower cluster is accented by a red bract, sort of like a poinsettia flower would have. In fact, another one of the common names for this plant is poinsettia tree. The flower cluster, which is orange, is very appealing to butterflies because it is loaded with nectar. In any given moment, several species of butterflies can be seen visiting the flowers.
Although Warszewiczia warrants more use in tropical gardens, it is rarely seen outside botanical gardens. One reason for this is that it is difficult to propagate. Usually, plants in the coffee family can be propagated by seeds or by cuttings. Warszewiczia, on the other hand, shows little success with either method. After several years of trying in the greenhouses of the Butterfly Center, just one cutting has ever proven successful.
Due to its rarity, Warszewiczia is highly sought after by plant collectors. If a collector was lucky enough to acquire one of these plants he would want to live in a warm environment such as Houston. Any environment colder than Houston would require a greenhouse to overwinter the plant.