African Tulip: Bulbul collecting nectar

on 7th September 2007

The African tulip (Spathodea campanulata) is a native of tropical West African. It is commonly found growing in this region. Once popular in Singapore for its attractive and colourful flowers, tall trees are now not tolerated along the wayside where falling branches may endanger life and limbs. They can still be seen in wastelands where their large, orange-red flowers top the crown.

The flower buds are filled with a sweetish liquid and during the days when they were growing all over the island, children used them as instant ‘water pistols’ to squirt each other’s eyes with the liquid. The buds are held erect and as they develop and split open, their copious nectar inside the calyx cup attracts numerous birds.

According to Corner (1988), the flowers remain on the tree for three days and attract sunbirds that suck the nectar from the base of the corolla by pecking a hole at the base. In this way the birds do not help in pollination, which is most likely done by night-flying bats.


Recently Johnny Wee sent an image of a Yellow-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus goiavier) robbing the nectar by puncturing a hole at the base of the flower (above). I am sure there are many other birds similarly taking advantage of the copious nectar.

Unfortunately, we have limited information on the birds that are attracted to the attractive flowers of the African Tulip. Can it be because the flowers are high up on the tree and birders find it tedious to observe? Or are birders not sharing their observations?

Richard Hale has sent in the following: “…when I first came back to Singapore in the late eighties I was puzzled by some apparent Asian Glossy Starlings (Aplonis panayensis) which had yellow breasts. It took some time before I caught some with their heads inside the tulip tree flowers and realised that the yellow was in fact pollen.”

So apparently some birds collect the nectar in the conventional way while the bulbul above has “cuckold” the tree?

YC Wee & Richard Hale
September 2007

(Image by Johnny Wee)

1. Barwick, Margaret (2004). Tropical and subtropical trees. A worldwide encyclopaedic guide. London: Thames & Hudson.
2. Corner, E. J. H. (1988). Waysides trees of Malaya. Vol. 1-2. Malayan Nature Society, Kuala Lumpur.
3. Wee, Y. C. (2003). Tropical trees and shrubs – A selection for urban plantings. Sun Tree Pub., Singapore.

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

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