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Cordia sebestena L. 1753
pronounced: KOR-dee-uh seb-ess-TAY-nuh
(Boraginaceae – the comfrey family)
common names: Geiger Tree, Broad-leafed Cordia
Cordia is named for Valerius Cordus, (1515 –1544) a German physician and botanist; sebestena is from sabastan, an Arabic name given to a related tree with similar drupes. Geiger is for Captain John H. Geiger, a 19th century Key West pilot and wrecker. John James Audubon (1785 – 1851), the French-American ornithologist, hunter and painter, in his Ornithological Biography, the first really useful book to be published on the birds of North America, had an engraving of the beautiful Cordia tree growing in Captain Geiger’s garden in Key West, Florida.
Cordia sebestena is native from the Bahamas to the tip of northern South America, and has become naturalized in Florida. It is very much a part of south Florida’s streetscapes. It grows in the limestone rocks of the Florida Keys, and on beaches in the Caribbean. This is a very good tree for seaside planting, as it has quite a high salt tolerance: there is one growing on the Horseshoe Bay foreshore, and another in Nelly Bay, a little distance back from the road opposite to the Nelly Bay Habitat area.
This is a dense, rounded, evergreen native tree that grows slowly, up to a height of about 7.5 m with an almost equal spread, and can develop a trunk of about 30 cm in diameter. This trunk is normally short and crooked, wide in comparison with its height. The bark is brown and ridged.
The leaves are simple, alternate, cordate with an undulate margin, 10-18 cm in length. They are rough and hairy, feeling much like sandpaper, and are very deeply indented by the veins, which form hard ridges on the under side. The leaves are irritating to some people.
Flowers are borne throughout much of the year. They are bell-like, in clusters scattered amongst the deep foliage. Each scarlet flower is about 5 cm across; a finely pleated tube is neatly inserted into a long olive-brown calyx, and this tube opens out into 6 rounded petals, deeply crinkled and pleated. Anything up to a dozen flowers may be found in the one cluster.
The fruit is distinctive – a white drupe enclosed in the remains of the calyx. The sepal cup expands and becomes fleshy, and inside this is the fertilized ovary which becomes a hard ‘nut’, covered by a thin fleshy coat. The fruits are ovoid in shape, 2.5–4 cm long, changing from green to the whitish colour. They are sticky when ripe. Although they are edible and have a pleasant fragrance, they have a bland flavour.
The heartwood from this tree is a beautiful fine-grained hardwood, of browns and blacks in often irregular patterns; this contrasts vividly with the useful cream-coloured sapwood. It is used for carving, for making furniture and musical instruments, including guitars and drums, and in boat-building.
In North America, this tree is subject to extensive, but non-fatal, damage by the Geiger tortoise beetle, Physonota calochroma floridensis, whose larvae, found on the lower sides of the leaves, will reduce them to skeletons, and can almost completely defoliate the tree. I have not been able to discover whether or not this beetle has yet reached Australia.
The caterpillars of the Kou Leafworm Ethmia nigroapicella use the tree as a food plant.
Photographs taken in Horseshoe & Nelly Bays 2010-2013
Page last updated 16th March 2018