Extinguishing the African Tulip Tree

The African Tulip Tree known as the “flame of the forest” in Hawaii has become known for its ability to outcompetes and threatens native plants. Luckily the invasive tree cannot tolerate high elevations which gives conservationists hope for extinguishing it.

Think before you plant. That is the lesson that generations of Hawaiians have learned from the invasive African Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata). The species was originally introduced to the islands in the 1800’s by a botanist. At the time, people were not aware of the impact non-native species can have on island ecosystems.

Now, the bright orange flowers of the tree can be seen throughout Maui. This “flame of the forest” is scorching the native landscape. The African Tulip Tree grows rapidly and has been shown to outcompete native vegetation in Hawai’i’s forests including valued native species such as ʻŌhiʻa trees, Opala, and Maile (Alyxia oliviformis). Research in Puerto Rico has shown that the species can grow up to two inches in diameter every year and outcompete native species.


The invasive African Tulip Tree threatens native plant species such as ʻŌhiʻa. Credit: Forest and Kim Starr

Not only do the rapidly growing trees block out sunlight for native forest species, but also the invasive saplings are also shade-tolerant and can grow with limited sunlight, making it easy to invade mature forests. Along the windward slopes of East Maui, an intact forest was overrun by the African Tulip Tree even with limited light available for the seedlings.

Amidst all of this remains one glimmer of hope. The African Tulip Tree cannot tolerate high elevation and is limited to approximately 3,200 feet. The lowland forests of Maui are already highly invaded by plants that were introduced to the island, but non-native plants including the African Tulip Tree have a difficult time adapting to the high-elevation forests where native species reign supreme.

Conservationists are determined to reduce the impact of the invasive African Tulip Tree. Lance DaSilva with the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife commented:

It’s my professional and personal goal to shrink the African tulip tree population of Koolau Forest Reserve.

At this point, DaSilva and his team have removed almost 700 African Tulip Trees and they are showing no signs of giving up. In order to conserve the native forests, people are encouraged to stop planting African Tulip Trees and to remove them if they have one. Those making landscaping and gardening plans should note the damaging impact of the African Tulip Tree and other invasive plants and heed the words: “Think before you plant.”

Featured photo: Forest of Maui. Credit: Olga Caprotti
Source: Maui News

About Emily Heber

Emily is a recent graduate from UC Santa Barbara with a BS in Zoology. As a student, she discovered that she had a passion for the conservation of endangered species and their ecosystems. Her background in informal education has allowed her the opportunity to share her passion for animals with others, something she seeks to continue doing while working with the communication team. In her spare time, Emily enjoys exploring the amazing hiking trails found in Santa Cruz and tries to SCUBA dive whenever possible. Emily is excited to join the Island Conservation team and to help share the amazing work that is being done here.

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