In a sea of green, bright reds stand out. This counts as much in East Texas woods as along the coastal beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. This time of year in our forests one red flower cluster draws more eyes and more questions than anything else. These would be the long, red, tubular flowers of coral bean trees, Erythrina herbacea.
Most kids recognized the hard, red beans that appear on these small trees in the fall. Many a younger sibling suffered an “Indian burn” from an older brother who had rapidly rubbed one of these beans on a brick wall or sidewalk, heating it with friction. The hot bean was then placed against a bit of tender, exposed flesh bringing forth a yelp of pain and a swat. Little did either know that the inner meat of these seeds is mildly poisonous, causing stupor in humans and death in smaller animals. Don’t eat the seeds.
What you do want to eat are the cooked, late-spring flowers of this tree. Steaming is good, though traditionally boiling is a safer bet. You don’t want to eat them uncooked because the raw flower supposedly contains their own poisonous compounds.
Why eat a poisonous plant? Well, first off cooking does render the flowers harmless, so technically you aren’t eating anything toxic at that point. Their flavor is “mild and green” like other simple potherbs.
Coral bean flowers are absolutely loaded with a variety of antioxidants. When you see the word “antioxidants” think “anti-cancer.” Antioxidants destroy the class of compounds known as free-radicals. Think of free-radicals as axe-swinging maniac molecules trying to chop apart the DNA in your cells. This damaged DNA then causes your cellular machinery to go haywire, resulting in certain types of cancers. Antioxidants are the cellular SWAT teams that take down these molecular miscreants, protecting your cells from damage. Win!
Look for these yellow-ish trunked trees in dappled shade along the edges of woods. They prefer the sandy soils along streams than heavier clay soils. Their leaves are compound with an odd number of leaflets. Each of these leaflets has a distinctive, broad-based spearhead shape, technically called “hastate.” The flowers grow in long rows at the ends of dark green branches, maturing at the bottom first with greenish, unopened buds at the top. The nectar-filled flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds, one of the few creatures capable of reaching down to the bottom of the blossoms.
Food, anti-cancer and swarming with hummingbirds. Who needs to travel to exotic beaches for coral when we have fantastic ones growing here?