Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the May 20, 2012 Newsletter issued from the woods of the Loess Hill Region a few miles east of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

Out in the woods on moist, shaded slopes maybe the most surprising, eye-catching plant flowering these days is the shoulder-high one shown below:


Notice the trifoliate compound leaves, then take a look at the raceme of two-inch-long (5cm), bright-red flowers below:

Coral Bean, ERYTHRINA HERBACEA, flowers

In Mexico we've seen small trees with leaves and flowers like these, for example those of the commonly planted Coral Tree shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/erythrin.htm.

The Mexican Coral Tree's big, trifoliate leaves and very slender, red blossoms are very similar to what we have here, but our plants are much smaller and only woody at the base. What we have here is variously known in English as the Coral Bean, Cherokee Bean, Red Cardinal and Cardinal Spear. It's ERYTHRINA HERBACEA, which means that it's in the same genus as Mexico's Coral Tree, which is Erythrina coralloides, so the two species are closely related.

With about 130 species, the genus Erythrina is nearly entirely tropical and subtropical in distribution, so our Coral Bean, found only in the US Deep South and along Mexico's Gulf coast, can be thought of as an effort of the genus to extend northward into colder climes.

Coral Beans are members of the huge Bean Family. They do produce papilionaceous flowers typical of the Bean Family, with the usual "standard" petal at the blossom's top, two side "wings" and the two lower petals fused into a boat-shaped "keel." However, the standard is larger than the other petals and folds over and hides them, obscuring the bean-flower identity. Later in the year the plant's legumes will split open releasing bright red beans.

Traditionally many indigenous American groups used Coral Bean medicinally. The Creek used an infusion of the root for bowel pain; the Choctaw used a decoction of the leaves as a general tonic; the Seminole used an extract of the roots for digestive problems, and extracts of the seeds or inner bark served as an external rub for rheumatism. In Mexico the seeds are used as rat poison, while the bark and leaves serve as fish poison.