It’s a tree! It’s a song!

(Flowers and music for diversion in difficult times.)

Ann Burlingham, towards the end of her recent visit to family in Australia, posted photos of a poinciana tree in gorgeous bloom. Among them:


(#1) Royal poinciana or flame tree, Delonix regia, in the pea / bean family (the legumes, or Fabaceae)

(Note: it’s been extraordinarily hot in Oz, and significant parts of the southeast are consumed in flames, but Ann  — and Jason and Henry — were far from the fire zone when she photographed the poinciana.)

An American friend of Ann’s commented, “I had never seen or heard of it before!” I responded, “Maybe you’d never heard about the flowering tree, but surely you’ve heard the jazz ballad.” But no. It seems that unless you’re into jazz or are really old — the heyday of “Poinciana” was apparently the 1940s through the 60s — you don’t know the song. (I’ve been asking around, and mostly just get blank stares.)

It’s a tree! From Wikipedia:

Delonix regia is a species of flowering plant in the bean family Fabaceae, subfamily Caesalpinioideae native to Madagascar. It is noted for its fern-like leaves and flamboyant display of orange-red flowers over summer. In many tropical parts of the world it is grown as an ornamental tree and in English it is given the name royal poinciana, [poinciana], flamboyant, flame of the forest, or flame tree (one of several species given this name).

This species was previously placed in the genus Poinciana, named for Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy, the 17th century governor of Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts) [in the West Indies].

Notes on naming. poinciana is now a common name (technical term common name ‘everyday term for a taxon’), in fact the most common (though not the only) common name for Delonix regia, though it originated as a taxonomic name; taxonomic names not infrequently, faute de mieux, serve as common names as well. It’s also an eponymous name; the eponym, the person for whom the poinciana is named, is the French nobleman and colonial administrator de Poincy.

Some other eponymous plant names that are regularly used as common names (most of them are also currently taxonomic names):

alstromeria, banksia, camellia, dahlia, forsythia, franklinia, freesia, fuchsia, gardenia, gerbera, magnolia, pointsettia, tradescantia, weigela, wisteria / wistaria, zinnia

Notes on botany. As you can see in #1, the poinciana has the characteristic pinnately compound leaves of legume trees, seen also in black and honey locust, mimosa, and acacia / wattle trees:


(#2) Acacia leaves (Wikipedia photo)

The gorgeous flowers of the poinciana don’t at first look particularly pea-like:

(#3)

But in fact they have the same 5-petaled, 5-sepaled structure as the familiar flowers of peas, beans, and lupines.

It’s a song! From Wikipedia on “Poinciana (Song of the Tree)”:

The [1936] song has been identified as a development of a Cuban folk song entitled “La Canción del Árbol” whose title translates as “the song of the tree”, the royal poinciana being a favorite Caribbean flowering plant. However composer Nat Simon would claim the song’s tune came to him while he was dining at Manhattan Theater District restaurant Leone’s, and that he jotted down a rough draft of the melody on his table’s cloth which – with Leone’s permission – he took home to work out the completed melody at his piano. Lyrics for the song were completed in about thirty minutes by Buddy Bernier, who cited as his inspiration a postcard of a royal poinciana tree he’d recently received from Florida.

… Orchestra leader Jerry Wald was a rare early aficionado of the song, and Wald’s showcasing of “Poinciana” during his 1943 gig at the Hotel New Yorker has been credited with boosting its profile, “Poinciana” being recorded in 1943 by Glenn Miller with his Army Air Force Band, with three 1944 recordings of the song afforded hit status, being those by Benny Carter and His Orchestra; Bing Crosby (recorded October 1, 1943); and David Rose and His Orchestra.

Its popularity reinforced by its appearance in the 1952 film Dreamboat, “Poinciana” has become a standard of Latin jazz: the theme song of pianist Ahmad Jamal – whose version, introduced on the 1958 album At the Pershing: But Not for Me, would be showcased on the soundtrack of the 1995 film The Bridges of Madison County – the song has also been recorded by Frank Sinatra, George Shearing, Dave Brubeck & Paul Desmond, Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, … [long, long list of covers follows]

The ca. 11-minute-long Ahmad Jamal version is fabulous; you can listen to a shorter pop version here (#4) — a lush 1960 performance by Nat King Cole with Ralph Carmichael’s Orchestra. The rather overwrought lyrics:

Poinciana, your branches speak to me of love,
Pale moon is casting shadows from above.
Poinciana, somehow I feel the jungle heat,
Within me there grows a rhythmic savage beat.

Love is everywhere, its magic perfume fills the air,
To and fro you sway, my heart’s in time, I’ve learned to care.
Poinciana, though skies may turn from blue to gray,
My love will live forever and a day.

More notes on names. Songs with flower names as their titles, or in their titles, are not at all unusual; rose has been used endlessly, and lily fairly often.  The names are common (not taxonomic) names, and mostly evoke familiar, everyday flowers: “Marigold” (as performed by Nirvana), or “Sunflower” (used as a title by Vampire Weekend, among several other groups); or the supremely homey “Edelweiss” (from the Sound of Music). No Tagetes, Helianthus, or Leontopodium.

In this context, “Poinciana” stands out as exotic — as it surely was intended to by the songwriters. A tropical flower with its magic perfume; it has a pleasant grape-like scent, and the flower is in fact used as a fragrance note in a number of perfumes.

2 Responses to “It’s a tree! It’s a song!”

  1. Sim Aberson Says:

    It’s pretty much a weed here. They grow extremely fast and spread quickly from seed. We’ve been trying to eradicate it from our yard forever, but they just keep growing. There is a local festival to celebrate the trees when they are in bloom, now approaching its 83rd iteration – http://www.tfts.org/rpf-2/.

    The note about the scent is interesting. I have never gotten a scent out of it, so I was surprised that it is used in perfumes. Some websites say there is no discernible smell, whereas others disagree. I’m definitely agree with the former camp.

    • Arnold Zwicky Says:

      On the scent. I remember being surprised, on my first acquaintance with the trees, in Coral Gables many years ago, that I caught no scent; I knew the song, I expected some perfume. Of course, the tree now grows throughout the tropics and subtropics (it’s, as you note, um, vigorous), so there’s undoubtedly a considerable amount of genetic variation; *somewhere* it gives off a pleasant light scent.

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