Chilean flame tree really sets an urban setting alight
THE Chilean flame tree is always a traffic-stopper, but more so than ever this year. Like every other spring and early summer flowering tree, it has put on much bigger show of flowers than usual this year because of the exceptionally good summer weather last year.
The flowers are flaming red, designed to attract pollinating hummingbirds in its native land.
The botanical name is embothrium and it does best in the southwest of this country, where it is mild and damp, doing less well in drier eastern areas, but it still does well anywhere not too far from the coast. It is not completely hardy and can be damaged by hard frosts. It is less likely to be affected by frost when it is established due to the bark being thicker.
It is a variable plant in its native range in South America, some kinds evergreen, some deciduous, for instance. The type grown here is generally fairly tall, evergreen, reaching five or six metres in good conditions, with brilliant orange-red flowers. The display peaks in May but lasts for several weeks from start to finish.
The soil must be acidic or neutral, the flame tree does not tolerate lime in the soil. The soil must also be light, well-drained and deep, but moist-retentive and not overly rich. Most areas with acid soil fall into this category. The ideal soil should have plenty of well-rotted humus, and this can be dug in, or applied as a mulch, especially in the form of leaf-mould.
Choose the planting spot carefully because this is a very showy tree and it can look out of place and jarring against natural countryside. It looks fine in any urban setting.
Also remember that it can make a big bush to six metres tall and as wide if there is space.
Plant the tree carefully, preparing the ground well and afterwards ensure no weed or grass competition over a circle of at least one metre diameter.
The young tree grows at a rapid rate, at least 60cm of growth each year. It flowers just a few years after planting and will flower reliably each year afterwards. It needs good shelter to grow fast and to avoid winter damage to the foliage.
It seems a lot of trouble, but it is actually quite easy to grow, given the right conditions. Although more available in recent years, it can be difficult to find still. It can be grown from suckers that commonly appear near the parent tree, and cuttings from mid-summer are a possibility too.