Geiger Tree, Scarlet Cordia

by Green Deane

in Edible Raw, Fruits/Berries, Plants, Trees/Shrubs

Geiger Tree, Scarlet Cordia


Cordia sebestena: Foraging Geiger Counter

Foragers eat the mild fruit of the Geiger Tree and care not about the particulars. Botanists care about particulars and can’t agree where it came from but they are pretty sure it is not a Floridian but in Florida it was named.

The Geiger Tree got it’s name from no less a person than John James Audubon. But, before I explain that, the record should be set straight about Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon.

John James Audubon

He was born a French citizen in Haiti, went back to France as a boy then to the US at age 18 to avoid being drafted into the French army by Napoleon.  He learned English from Quakers and used “thee’s” and “thou’s” long since passe even then. That he was a bigger than life personality and an innovative artist is quite true and worthy of mention. His drawings did promote interest in nature. But you should know that the National Audubon Society is far more nobel than the man whose name they perpetuate.

The society not only had no substantial connection to Audubon but is an advocate of nature. Audubon raped nature. He kill scores, many times hundreds of just about every creature he ever drew. And that is not an exaggeration. He was not a protector of nature by any definition. A bad day was a day he did not shoot several hundred birds. He was a one-man extinction machine. Even by the standards of his day he was an excessive hunter when he did not have to be.  Conservation was not in his vocabulary. As an old man he changed his mind but I am not sure that has any value. It did not bring back the tens of thousands of the creatures he dispatched. Food is one thing, wholesale saughter is another. Since he was famous for his painting of birds it was a good marketing strategy for the nature group to call themselves the National Audubon Society. The irony is that the society is all about being good to nature while Audubon himself was all about being bad.

As for the Geiger Tree…  John H. Geiger was a sea captain, harbor master, salvager and pirate based in Key West, which at the time was the richest city in America. He made a lot of money legitimately and illegitimately and had a mansion there, though then the key was called Thompson Island. Audubon saw the Geiger House in 1832 while (hunting of course) and sketching 18 bird pictures. Geiger had reportedly planted two Cordia sebestena on the property — it is the prettiest of the genus. (I doubt a swashbuckling pirate would plant a pretty tree so maybe Mrs. Geiger deserves the credit. ) Audubon used one of them in a drawing prompting the tree to be called the Geiger Tree.  Audubon wrote:

“The Rough-leaved Cordia

This plant, on account of its large tubular scarlet flowers, is one of the most beautiful of the West Indian trees. I saw only two individuals at Key west, where we supposed, they had been introduced from Cuba. They were about fifteen feet high, the stem having a diameter of only five or six inches. They were in full bloom in the early part of May, and their broad deep green leaves, and splendid red blossoms, mingled with the variety of plants around me, rendered their appearance delightful. Both trees were on private property, and grew in a yard opposite to that of Dr. Strobel, through whose influence I procured a large bough, from which the drawing was made, with assistance of Mr. Lehman. I was informed that they continue to flower nearly the whole summer.”

Audubon, by the way, did not stay at the now “Audubon House” while in Key West.  He slept aboard the revenue cutter Marion.  The Marion and crew escorted Audubon and entourage plus his dog Plato around the keys and Dry Tortugas for six weeks in April and May 1932. They were the coast guard of their day and saw much action.

Geiger fruit edible raw or cooked

The Cordia sebestena (KOR-dee-uh seb-ess-TAY-nuh) has been planted through much of the warm world for its scarlet flowers and edible white drupes. While the fruits are edible their smell is better than they taste. Cooking improves their flavor some. They are also fibrous. The tree also has a long medicinal history. Where it is from is a debate, from Cuba to the West Indies to South America. The teapot tempest rages on. The fruit of the C. alliodora is also edible.

Cordia (which means late) was named for father and son German  botanists/pharmacists/physicians Euricius Cordus (1486-1535) and Valarius Cordus (1515-1544.)  Euricius (Heinrich in German) was a professor and the 13th son of a farmer named Urban Solden. As number 13 little Heinrich was called the “late one” or in Latin Cordu. He kept the name as a last name when he Latinized his name as many educated people of that age did, going from Heinrich Urban Solden to Euricius Codus.  His son, Valarius Codus, died at 29 of malaria while in Rome but had already established himself as a intellectual heavyweight of his age. His posthumous publications bolstered his reputation even more.  Sebestena if from Sebesten, a name given to a related tree with similar fruit.

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: A small tree, usually under 25 feet, upright slender branches, leaves drop in cold or dry periods. They are alternate, ovate, pointed , sometimes slightly toothed near tip, five inches to a food long, three inches to half a foot wide, dull, rough hairy above, and pale and nearly smooth below, in clusters at the ends of branches. Flowers scarlet or orange, funnel shaped, five to sever lobes, slightly crinkled, one to two inches wide, showy flat terminal clusters. The calyx (fruit) is conical or pear-shaped one to one and a half inches long, white, pleasantly fragrant, with one or two large dark brown seeds.

TIME OF YEAR: Spring to late fall

ENVIRONMENT: Hammocks, sand dunes, landscaping

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Fruit is juicy and edible raw (not the seeds.) Cooking improves the flavor.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Adrienne December 21, 2014 at 17:27

Excellent article. It’s difficult to find much information about this tree. Could anyone provide me with information about container growing it indoors in colder zones yet also getting it to flower in the summer? I can provide additional light in winter but need to know how much would be needed. Any knowledge about this would be greatly appreciated.


karen October 4, 2015 at 13:17

I got my tree at a county tree giveaway two and a half years ago in South Florida. I left it in the gallon pot for one year and transplant it to a 5-gallon pot last year. Both years I left it in the shade. I moved it to sunny spot this March and three months later it had flowered since. It really did not like the cold but it had recovered.


Martin Halley August 15, 2013 at 13:53

It is good to see that someone else is also not wearing rose-tinted spectacles when discussing John Audubon. Just a single example from his writings is enough to expose the truth. Here he describes his visit to Florida Keys to shoot Double-crested Cormorants (while nesting):

“. . . a great number stood on their nests and the branches, as if gazing upon beings strange to them. But alas! they soon became too well acquainted with us, for the discharges from our guns committed frightful havoc among them. The dead were seen floating on the water, the crippled making towards the open sea, which here extended to the very Keys on which we were, while groups of a hundred or more swam about a little beyond the reach of our shot, awaiting the event, and the air was filled with those whose anxiety to return to their eggs kept them hovering in silence. In a short time the bottom of our boat was covered in the slain, several hats and caps were filled with eggs; and we may now intermit the work of destruction.!

He was not alone in this attitude. His friend John Bachman writes to Audubon recounting an expedition to shoot White Heron in Carolina: “Many more may have been killed; but we became tired of shooting them.” This being after collecting forty-six dead birds with many more having been shot but falling too far away for anyone to be bothered to wade out and collect the corpses.

Audubon only realised the error of his ways, which were extreme even by the standards of his peers, when he found that he and his kind had more or less wiped-out the entire population of White Herons.

Absolutely amazing by modern standards – how times have changed!


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