Geiger Trees are an Easy Way to Bring Intense Color to Your Landscape with Minimal Care
By Kenneth Setzer
There are actually hundreds of what we call Geiger trees, all members of the Cordia genus. Some Cordia are found naturally in India, Australia, the Middle East and tropical Africa, though most are Neotropical, making them ideal candidates for Coral Gables gardens.
The three Geigers found most commonly in Florida landscapes are the orange Geiger (Cordia sebestena), yellow Geiger (C. lutea) and white Geiger (C. boissieri), named for the color of their flowers. All three share some similarities: the bark is rough, deeply furrowed, and exfoliated (it feels and looks like coarse manila rope); their foliage consists of large, velvety oblong leaves which mature to a sandpapery feel you’ll want to experience.
The orange-flowered Geiger is usually the show stealer, and my favorite. Some claim it is a Caribbean-Lower Keys native. Other sources, including John James Audubon, suggest it was introduced from Cuba into Key West through commerce in the early 1800s. The common name “Geiger” comes from, the story claims, Audubon himself. While visiting his friend John Geiger in Key West, he supposedly was so impressed by the tree’s orange blossoms, growing in Geiger’s yard – or possibly the neighbor’s yard – that he named it the Geiger tree. The twist is that Geiger built his house – currently the Audubon House – in 1846-1849. Audubon had already included orange Geiger flowers in his painting of white-crowned pigeons of circa 1832.
Geigers are generally tolerant of salt spray, so make nice coastal plantings. All three are also very drought tolerant. The white Geiger is native to Mexico and extreme southern Texas, where it’s called Texas white olive. White Geiger has the added benefit of cold tolerance, showing no damage from our occasional wintertime dips to the upper 30s. Growing slowly to about 25 feet, it’s compact, but with a spreading crown. Prune them to encourage upward, not outward, growth. (Orange Geigers get a few feet taller, but with similar spread).
The yellow Geiger’s flowers are an intense, saturated yellow, but really all of them are stunning and flower year-round – though more so in summer – and while the white Geiger’s flowers are a bit understated, at night they reflect light and attract big, beautiful sphinx moths. Grow Geigers in full sun; they thrive in our harshest midday summer sun. The sandy, alkaline
soil we find here is also not a problem. I watered mine as a seedling after planting, but only for a couple weeks. In about 10 years it grew to about 10 feet, and never required irrigation or fertilizer.
They are somewhat deciduous, losing foliage during drier, cooler conditions, so don’t be alarmed when they drop leaves in winter. When warm rains return, new foliage will appear followed by clusters of flowers; spheres (teardrop shaped in orange Geiger) of greenish fruit will follow. Birds eat them to an extent, but I don’t see a lot else eating the fruit.
The only drawback to their flowers is that they are, at least to most human noses, unscented. But they make up for this by feeding our eyes, and also feeding moths, skippers, and bees. The Geiger seems unperturbed by scale, aphids, thrips and whiteflies. Geiger tortoise beetle larvae (Eurypepla calochroma) may feed on the foliage of orange Geiger, causing minor, temporary cosmetic damage. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of these beetles; they are spectacularly beautiful metallic gold insects.
Consider using orange Geiger as “statement” trees, flanking paths and driveways, while yellow Geiger can be encouraged to grow into a large hedge. White can be utilized where your property doesn’t demand as much intense color. Choose any or all for no-maintenance, reliable ornamentals guaranteed to lend your landscape a tropical Caribbean feel.