Brachychiton acerifolius
Illawarra flame tree

Malvaceae (mallow family)
New South Wales, Queensland
flame tree
One of the Inner Quad’s two Illawarra flame trees in full bloom. The entire canopy bursts into bloom only every few years. Sairus Patel, 20 Jul 2017
Brachychiton acerifolius leaf silhouette. Frontispiece of the book Trees of Stanford and Environs by Ronald Bracewell

A flame tree planted in 1891 in the outer northwest island of the Inner Quad was famous for the brilliant display it put on in May–June, covering the ground with a mantle of red bells. In most years only part of a flame tree blooms, but even this is striking, as the leaves all drop off in the flowering zone. Every few years the whole of the big flame tree burst into glorious bloom and the ground was red with the waxy bells, which are good for leis. The leaves themselves are handsome, large, and of several different shapes. After a wind, black boat-shaped pods fall and the seeds can be extracted from a brittle honeycomb structure. If sown in moist peat moss they begin to germinate after six weeks or so. Extraordinarily beautiful photographs of the blossoms have appeared on the cover of Stanford magazine (1978 Fall/Winter, see image gallery). A flame tree flowering alongside a jacaranda is a marvel to behold. Jacarandas have been started in the Inner Quad and flame trees should be tried in more locations when opportunity permits.

Front cover of the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, featuring the striking Illawarra flame tree, Brachychiton acerifolius, in the Inner Quad, circa 1950s. Photographer unknown; transparency given to Ronald Bracewell by the late Stanford arborist William Parker. The image has been retouched.

There is no doubt that the flame tree is frost sensitive, and the Inner Quad specimen ultimately succumbed. But it performed nobly for over 100 years and was replaced in the same sheltered spot in 1998; by 2003 the new tree was over 20 feet high and 9 inches in diameter. Another example was planted in the Arizona Garden in June 2003, behind the bench, and was hand-watered by garden coordinator Christy Smith. It was removed October 2008, its trunk chewed by squirrels, killing the tree.

Occasional trees are found in the neighborhood, for example at 416 O’Keefe Street, Menlo Park. It was planted in 1958 and was 2 feet in diameter and 40 feet high by 2003.

Name derivation: Brachychiton – from Greek, brachys, short and chiton, a tunic, a reference to the coating on the seed; acerifolius – maple-like leaf.

About this Entry: The main text of this entry is from the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, by Ronald Bracewell, published 2005. Family changed from Sterculiaceae to Malvaceae; common name changed from flame tree to Illawarra flame tree (Jul 2017, SP).