Growing up in Durban we were lucky enough to be treated to the vibrant red flowers of the amazing coral tree, and even luckier as children to be able to collect the pods, filled with ‘lucky beans’! Erythrina lysistemon, known commonly as the coral tree or lucky bean tree, is an important plant in Zulu culture, where it’s referred to as uMsinsi. According to one site the full isiZulu name is actually uMsinsi wukazimilela, translating to ‘this is where we are from’, which makes sense if you consider how the tree was used in the past.
Regarded as royal trees, uMsinsi were planted on the graves of Zulu chiefs. They were also used as ‘living fences’ around kraals and waterholes, offering protecting from outsiders. The coral tree is thought to have both medicinal and magical properties: a chief will wash himself in water in which the bark of the tree has been soaked, believing that it will ensure the respect of his people. It is thought the the coral tree has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. The tree is used medicinally for women who about to give birth – an infusion of herbs made from the tree is believed to make childbirth easier. A poultice made from the bark is used to treat sores, wounds, abscesses and arthritis, with an infusion of the leaves being used as ear drops to relieve earache. Finally the boiled roots of the tree are applied to sprains to help with swelling and pain.
As the name suggest the seeds of the uMsinsi are considered to bring good luck, and are also used decoratively for necklaces and earrings. An exhibition brochure published for settlers to New Zealand (c. 1870’s) contains an advertisement for the ‘South African Lucky Bean Stall’ enticing the public to buy ‘Lucky Bean Jewellery’ from necklaces to watch chains, to bangles and hat pins, all of which “will be made by hand while you wait”!
And finally we get to the famous flowers of the coral tree, which blooms in the early spring (from August to September) producing a spectacular canopy of red hot poker-like flowers. The appearance of the bright scarlet flowers, just before the new leaves appear, were (and apparently still are!) a signal to people that it’s time to plant their crops.