Red Powderpuff (Calliandra haematocephala)
Even tropical rainforests can have seasons. Instead of the seasonal cycles of temperatures and daylengths experienced by those of us in temperate climes, some tropical rainforests, such as the Amazon rainforest, experience wet and dry seasons. According to a 2007 study using NASA satellite images, trees in these forests may lose foliage in the wet season and grow more in the dry season, counter to our expectations. These changes in vegetation keep the climate cycles going.
Our own Wings of the Tropics exhibit experiences seasonal variation as well, but not for those reasons. Our 200+ species of plants in the conservatory have to experience Colorado winter, albeit in a much milder form, along with us. The days grow short, the temperatures and humidity drop. To us, the miniature rainforest may feel warm and moist, but the plants know the difference.
That is why a winter blooming plant, such as the Red Powderpuff, becomes so very valuable to us at the Butterfly Pavilion. With its scarlet “fairy duster” flowers, the flower of this tree catches the eye of many visitors, but it also attracts many different species of butterflies. Unlike with some of our other flowering plants, big and small butterflies alike can access the nectar, which can be a limited resource this time of year.
Red Powderpuff will continue to bloom until spring, when the other plants in the conservatory begin to once again hit their stride. As the flowers age, they begin to look rather matted, but still charming; around here, we call them “Elmos”, after the Sesame Street character. Once the tree produces seed, perceptive visitors might notice the long, thin pods, which are a clue that Red Powderpuff is in the bean family. And once the show is over, we’ll have to wait nine more months to enjoy it again.
Posted by Amy Yarger, Butterfly Pavilion horticulturist