Saturday, November 26, 2011

Crown Flower (Calotropis gigantea)

It is said that the Crown Flower ( also called Giant Milkweed) was the favorite flower of Queen Liliuokalani who was the last monarch of Hawaii.  Maybe she liked the crown shape of the flower because it does not have any fragrance.

I know that the emphasis of this blog so far has been on food producing plants but my favorite plants are those that are useful and those that are tough.  The Crown Flower wins on both these counts.  This tree will grow in hot, dry sandy areas.  I have seen a variety of it growing in the desert in Dubai.  The one I have in my garden is growing in a dry sandy area where other trees have failed to thrive. 
The tree I have now I started as a cutting in a gallon pot of potting mix.  When it was well rooted I transferred it to a 3 gallon pot, pinched the tips, and fertilised it well so that it would grow into a nice fat plant.  I then planted it out in the garden during the rainy months of winter to get established.  It was a little slow at first but is now doing well with just an occasional water during dry periods and an occasional trim to keep it from getting too spread out.

There are two main uses of the Crown Flower tree.  First, as a member of the milkweed family, it is a host plant for the Monarch butterfly.  It gives me great pleasure to watch all the butterflies in the garden and to know that I am helping to support them.  Around December the butterflies show up in large numbers to lay their eggs on the underside of the Crown Flower leaves.  These hatch into tiny caterpillars who will munch and munch until they are big and fat and a couple of inches long.  Then they will climb down the tree and go off looking for a fence, or another shrub, or the side of the house to attach to.  They hang upside down in a J shape and turn into a  beautiful green chrysalis trimmed with gold..  After about 14 days they will hatch into Monarch butterflies.  I enjoy watching them and so do all the grandchildren and the neighbors kids

The only down side to all this process of nature going on is that the caterpillars will chew down every leaf and the tree will look very naked and straggly for a month or so but it will revive just fine.  I usually trim the tree at this time when the caterpillars have done with the leaves and the new growth has not yet come out.  Because of the sad appearance of the tree for those short few months I decided to grown my present Crown Flower tree at the back of our garden instead of in the front yard.  One visitor horrified me by suggesting I should be using some sort of insecticide on the caterpillars!

The other big use for the Crown Flowers tree is of course all the leis we make in Hawaii with the flowers.  There are purple and white flowered varieties of Crown Flower but the purple flowers do seem to get used here  more.  Actually I rather like mixing the two colors while making leis or I add some other flowers for fragrance.  Sometimes the petals are removed from the flower center to make a smaller flower for a rope type lei.  Professional lei makers have some very intricate designs using Crown Flowers.

When picking the flowers to make leis, I always be very careful about wearing a hat so I do not get the trees white sap dripped in my eyes.  The sap can cause temporary blindness.  I noticed in Thailand that all the Crown Flower trees there were kept trimmed to about waist height.  It would make for easier picking but also much safer for the eyes.  The picked flowers then need to be soaked in cool water for a few hours to get the white sap off them as well as giving them a last perk up drink.  Crown Flowers are a very long lasting in the fridge so are good for leis that are being sent to the mainland.


PS......added in 2013 after a trip to Israel.  While there, I actually saw a Crown Flower in fruit and so I am adding a few pictures as we never see them in fruit in Hawaii.  I guess we do not have the pollinator.  The Crown Flower in the Israel was just slightly different in flower, it was the same as the one I saw in Dubai, but still a very close cousin.  The  green seed pods are huge like the size of an orange but when you pick them they are as light as a balloon.  I stomped on one and it popped loudly and inside was just a small core.  On the tree were a few older shriveled looking pods...and then a cluster of seed little dandelion seeds with umbrella shaped fluff on them.  The  fruited laden tree was quite a different aspect of the plant for me to see.  It was growing wild near the entrance to Masada which is a very dry, hot area.  Here are few of  my photos of it.