When you look at the flowers closely, you can see why one of this rare southeastern native tree’s common names is Poinsettia Tree. The showy sepals, which can range in color from white to pink to deep rose, do remind one of the showy bracts of Christmas poinsettias. But this tree is not related to poinsettias; it’s actually a cousin of another of my favorite summer-blooming shrubs — Buttonbush, which I’ll feature when it blooms.
Pinckneya pubens (formerly P. bracteata) is native to swamp and creek edges of southern Georgia and northern Florida, with a few occurrences noted in the southern tip of South Carolina. Obviously, it’s not quite a southeastern Piedmont native. However, I’d seen this species growing in a couple of local botanical gardens, and I was intrigued by the showy, long-lasting sepals that give this tree a blooming presence when few other trees (except Southern Magnolias) are flowering. When I researched its native habitat, I realized my yard’s creek edge on the floodplain that flows into a wetland was probably as close to ideal growing conditions as it was likely to find.
I was right. My tree is about fifteen years old now, and it’s about 15 feet tall. It’s been blooming reliably for a number of years. As you can see in the close-up above, my tree’s sepals are pink-tinged white. You can actually buy named cultivars of this species that are guaranteed to give you the color you want. I went with a seed-grown specimen, and its color suits me fine. In fact, the lighter tint of the sepals probably helps them stand out in the shade provided by tall sycamores and maples nearby. My tree grows right on the edge of the creek; when the creek floods, this tree is surrounded by fast-moving water, which, if anything, just makes it grow taller.
I’ve read that cold temperatures (around zero degrees Fahrenheit) will kill the tree to the ground, but it usually will resprout from the roots. So far, mine has flourished, despite some pretty cold temperatures, including prolonged ice storms.
The seeds of this tree are contained in big roundish brown capsules that provide visual interest to the winter landscape. Here’s a shot that shows flowers, leaves, and the previous year’s seed capsules:
Other common names for this species are Fevertree and Georgia Bark. These names refer to the fact that the inner bark was used long ago to treat malaria and other fevers.
I’ve read that Pinckneya won’t thrive in heavy wet clay. It wants sandier wet soils, which is what my creek edge provides. If you’ve got a similar wet spot in your yard that’s protected by high shade, you might want to give this southeast native a try. It’s a great conversation starter when you’re walking folks around the yard. After all, you generally don’t see what looks like a 15-foot tall poinsettia blooming in June in the southeastern Piedmont.