Erythrina abyssinica

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Related Links
© Saunders R.C.
The calyx lobes are long and filamentous and a bright orange-red colour.
© Ellis RP
Detail of the unusual ”petals” which characterize this species.
© Ellis RP
The bark is yellowish brown, thick and corky, deeply fissured and often with thick spines.
© Ellis RP
Note the calyx and corolla lobes which are not as slender as in some specimens of this species.
© Ellis RP
Erythrina abyssinica
© Patrick Maundu

Local names:
Amharic (kuara,korch,korra), Arabic (dus), Bemba (mulunguti), English (Uganda coral,red-hot-poker tree,erythrina,flame tree,lucky bean tree,kaffir boom), Luganda (kiyirikiti,muirikiti,jirikiti,muyirikiti), Lunda (chisunga), Nyanja (mwale,mulunguti), Shon

Erythrina abyssinica is medium-sized tree, usually 5-15 m in height, deciduous, thickset, with a well-branched, rounded, spreading crown; trunk short; bark yellow-buff when fresh, otherwise grey-brown to creamy brown, deeply grooved, thickly corky and often spiny; when damaged the tree exudes a brown, gummy sap.

Leaves compound, trifoliolate, alternate; leaflets almost as broad as long, 5.5-15 x 6-14 cm, with the terminal leaflet the largest; lateral leaflets rather smaller than this, if 3 lobed then obscurely so, densely woolly when young, losing most of these hairs by maturity; midrib and main veins on the undersurface often bear scattered prickles.

Flowers spectacular, in strong, sturdy racemes on the ends of branchlets, orange-red, up to 5 cm long; calyx joined to form a tube, split along the under surface almost to the base and separating away into long, slender, distinctive lobes at the apex; calyx and standard petal striking scarlet to brick red.

Fruit a cylindrical, woody pod, 4-16 cm long, deeply constricted between the seeds, densely furry, light brown in colour, opening to set free 1-10 shiny, red seeds with a grey-black patch.

This species closely resembles E. latissima.  

Erythrina comes from the Greek word ‘erythros’-red, alluding to the showy red flowers of the Erythrina species.  The specific name means ‘from Ethiopia’.


E. abyssinica is the most widespread species in Africa, found in savannahs throughout eastern and southern Africa. As with many trees in areas with frequent fires, the young trees establish a deep root system before stem growth. E. abyssinica grows well in most climates but not in dry or high areas. It does not grow in forests.

Native range
Botswana, Burundi, Central African Republic, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Tree management

Young trees should be protected from heavy frosts until they are well established. Growth is slow. Pollarding and coppicing are suitable for E. abyssinica. Trees should not be pruned until they are 1 year old. Frequent pruning will reduce the competitive effects of hedgerows and increase the ratio of leaves to stems but will also increase labour costs and reduce total tree biomass production. With its soft wood, E. abyssinica is somewhat easier to prune than other species used in alley farming. It may be advisable to grow the trees with shade-tolerant crops, rather than imposing a severe pruning regime to favour shade-intolerant crops. As a shade tree, it can be established rapidly by planting large stakes, 2.5 m long and 8-10 cm in diameter. Stakes this size can produce a canopy of 3-4 m diameter in 6 months.

The seeds may be stored for long periods without losing viability if kept cool, dry and insect free. Seeds that have been damaged by insects should be discarded. Before storage, remnants of the pod should be removed and the seeds sun dried for 1 day. Storage should be in a cool, dry place. For long-term storage, seeds are kept in a low-temperature seed-storage facility (approximately 5 deg. C and 30-40 r.h.). On average, there are about 6800 seeds/kg.

E. abyssinica is the most widespread species in Africa, found in savannahs throughout eastern and southern Africa. As with many trees in areas with frequent fires, the young trees establish a deep root system before stem growth. E. abyssinica grows well in most climates but not in dry or high areas. It does not grow in forests.

E. abyssinica grows easily from a truncheon planted at the onset of the rainy season and in 3-4 years will have reached a fair size. Propagation may also be carried out using seeds, seedlings, cuttings or direct sowing. The most common method is by large cuttings stripped of leaves, planted at the beginning of the rains directly in the location desired. E. abyssinica seeds have a hard coat and should be scarified to allow moisture to penetrate the seed, enhancing germination and making it more uniform. Seeds are easily scarified by rubbing with sandpaper or nicking with a knife. They should be immersed in water for several hours after scarification until they begin to swell. An alternative pretreatment method is to soak the seed in warm water (40 deg. C) for 12 hours. Seeds should be inoculated with Rhizobium bacteria after pretreatment and immediately before planting. This ensures nodulation and increases nitrogen fixation. Seeds germinate best in sterile sand; the soil can be sterilized by washing it in a solution of 5% formalin in water. The seeds should be well separated from one another in the germination box. Alternatively they may be sown directly into black polythene bags, using a mixture of soil, sand and compost in the proportion of 2:1:1. They should be sown just below the soil surface, with the hilum facing downwards. Nursery-grown plants are ready for transplanting when 20-30 cm tall. They can be established either by planting directly from plastic bags or by removing from the nursery beds and planting as bare-root stock. In the latter case, all leaves should be removed before planting.

Poison:  Seeds of E. abyssinica contain a curare-like poison that, if injected into the bloodstream, acts as an anaesthetic that may cause paralysis and even death by respiratory failure.

Erosion control:  The species is used on stream banks and for soil conservation terraces.

The foliage is considered a good protein supplement for ruminants (cattle, sheep and goats) and has been used as a fodder source for rabbits and pigs.

Apiculture:  The tree provides bees with forage.

E. abyssinica trees may be cut for firewood.

Timber:  The termite-resistant wood E. abyssinica is soft, greyish-white, non-durable, susceptible to fungal attack, and with a shot-silk effect. Although it is somewhat woolly to work, it does not split when nailed but has poor nail-holding ability. It has been used to make stools, toys, drums, utensils, mortars, beehives, pestles, boxes, picture frames, floors, shoes and for construction.

Shade or shelter:  E. abyssinica is grown as a shade plant in coffee plantations and grazing fields.

Tannin or dyestuff:  The bark and roots yield useful dyes.

Medicine:  Pounded parts are used in a steam form in Kenya to treat diseases such as anthrax, and the bark is boiled with goat meat for treating gonorrhoea. The bark of the green stem may also be pounded and then tied into a fine piece of cloth and the liquid from it squeezed into the eyes to cure inflammation of the lids. The bark may be roasted until black, powdered, and applied to burns and general body swellings. A decoction is taken orally as an anthelmintic and to relive abdominal pains. The roots are used to treat syphilis, and the leaves to cure skin diseases in cattle.

Nitrogen fixing:  The roots of trees are infected by Rhizobia nodulate and fix atmospheric nitrogen.

Ornamental:  The tree is a popular ornamental in the tropics and subtropics.

E. abyssinica has the useful characteristic of sprouting from truncheons if cut just before flowering, and so can be used to make a live fence.

Soil improver:  Leaf fall in the dry season is a source of mulch.

Intercropping:  E. abyssinica is usually combined with annual crops, especially when it is grown in rotation with coffee or cocoa.