'Handkerchief' Trees

One of the most popular trees for tropical gardeners at the moment is the 'Handkerchief Tree' or Maniltoa lenticellata. This tree is a stunning creature with dense dark green growth and a slight weeping aspect that makes it perfect for creating privacy and shade. However this is not why it is popular, nor is it because of its rapid growth, or its little cream coloured flowers. This Maniltoa is popular because of its soft pink new growth, which appears as a 30 to 40 centimetre long tassel or handkerchief. During a growth spurt, it looks like it has had dozens of pale pink handkerchiefs tied to its branches. These pink tassels slowly turn into creamy yellow leaves hanging from the end of a branch, and then finally to the deep green mature leaves.

Maniltoa lenticellata is native to Northern Queensland and is well suited to gardens across Northern Australia. You can expect a well-cared for Maniltoa to achieve 6 metres in height in its first 6 years and it will then slowly increase in height to reach a maxmum of 10 to 12 metres in the wet-dry tropics, with an expected width of 6 to 8 metres. The bad news here is a tree of this size is not something the average suburban garden can handle. The good news is the Maniltoa lenticellata is not the only 'handkerchief' tree around.

Browneopsis ucayalina is a small tree with possibly the most spectacular tassel of all the handkerchief trees. This South American tree will grow to approximately 4 metres in our climate, and has been used quite successfully as an indoor plant. It also produces attractive cream coloured puff ball flowers on its trunk which, if fertilised, will develop into a seed pod.



Saraca's are another species of tree with handkerchiefs, but these are better known for their flowers. There are approximately 20 different Saraca varieties, we are going to look at 2 of them, Saraca indica and thaipingensis. Both of these varieties will grow to 6 metres in our climate (but can achieve greater heights in the true tropics), and enjoy a 'sheltered upbringing'. This means they like to be protected from wind and full sun as juveniles, however once established will flourish in full sun.



This particular Saraca thaipingensis at the George Brown Botanical Gardens in Darwin is a particularly stunning specimen which has been pruned to around 4 metres and is a great example of what you can do with some patience and attention to detail. The pruning has resulted in a dense ball of foliage, with stunning shows of yellow, fragrant flowers in the late dry season. The handkerchiefs of this variety form in various shades of pink and are up to 60 centimetres long.





Saraca indica is often mistaken for Saraca asoka due to the similarities in the flowers, however on close inspection, indica is a mix of red, orange and yellow flowers, while asoka is pink, orange and yellow. Saraca indica is also easy to prune and has a pale yellow tassel which contrasts nicely with its deep green mature leaves.



Cynometra's are another type of tree with a 'tassel', although this one is not as large as those previously mentioned, they are usually bright pink and quite spectacular. This particular one is Cynometra ramiflora, and it also has highly scented cream coloured flowers, which makes this tree a lovely addition to the garden.



Cynometra ramiflora and its slightly better known cousin iripa (or Wrinkle Pod Mangrove) are found in mangrove and rainforest areas throughout Northern Australia and South East Asia, and can grow up to 15 metres in ideal conditions. As we know however, we do not have ideal conditions here in the Wet-Dry Tropics, so we are unlikely to get more than 6 metres out of these trees. They do have a tendency to grow wider than they do tall and will tolerate a bit of gentle 'shaping', so are often good candidates for large container growing, or in areas where you need a short, wide canopy.

So there it is, the beginning of a journey down the path of 'tassel trees', hopefully this will inspire you to look for these trees in your community. Or even better, inspire you to look for the unique in all of the plants around you, trust us, once you start you will be delighted with what you find!




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