UF/IFAS Okeechobee County Extension Service

458 Highway 98 North

Okeechobee, FL 34972-2578


May 3, 2007

Quick Links:  Guanacaste Tree    Ear Tree   Comparing the trees    References

Feature Article - for release the week of  May 6, 2007

Dan Culbert - Extension Horticulture Agent, retired

Right Plant / Right Place :  A Universal Concept  

Wow! Last week I joined four other faculty members of UF/IFAS on a visit to Costa Rica.  We were hosted by EARTH University to learn about the ornamental landscape industry in this beautiful Central America republic.  We also represented UF as it strengthened relationships between EARTH and the people of Costa Rica.


While there, I also observed how many of their tropical crops are produced and how the native plants are adapted to their environment.   Right now, Costa Rica is also experiencing drought.  This is especially severe in the northwestern area of the country.  We focused much of our visit in this area - the state of Guanacaste.


Learning about which plants can best survive in this area will be critical to their future. Tourist development is taxing this area’s very limited water resources.  Their experiences can help us here in Florida, as their successes may be found useful in our own  Florida Yards and Neighborhoods.


A National Tree  

The National Tree of Costa Rica is the Guanacaste.  Its broad shape and large size provides valuable shade and cover for wildlife, livestock and "Ticos" - the natives of this Central American democracy. Photo: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS 

A mature Guanacaste tree may have a trunk greater that 2 feet in diameter and a spread of 90 feet.  Photo: Hear.org


We observed a very beautiful tree is found naturally growing in Guanacaste - and its local common name is the same as the state.  The Guanacaste tree is also the National tree of Costa Rica.  The name comes from a Spanish translation of a local Indian word (cuauhnacaztli) which means "place of the ear tree”.


In its native environment, the Guanacaste has a broad spreading canopy that provides valuable shade to rangelands in arid areas of Northwest Costa Rica.  Larger Guanacaste trees with trunks over 3 feet in diameter may be 60 years in age. 


Besides valuable shade, this tree has other important assets.  Because it is a member of the bean family, it helps capture nitrogen from the air and puts it into the soil.  Its wood is decay resistant and light weight, which allows its use for canoes and wood paneling.


This enormous tree is often all that remains of larger Central American forest which were cleared for cattle grazing many years ago. They provide shade for the many other plants found growing below and support essential habitat for many frogs, birds, and insects.  This is why Guanacaste are often left standing in rangelands - and cattle eat the seed pods as well.  



Florida ’s Ear Tree


On our return to Florida, Miami-Dade Horticulture Agent Adrian Hunsberger was reviewing a book she acquired on the tour.  She was reading up on the Guanacaste tree, and found that its botanical name is Enterolobium cyclocarpum.  Something about that name finally brought a glimmer of recognition to me.  I finally remembered that this same tree grows in Florida; we call it the Ear Tree 


Ear trees are occasionally found in older homes in central and southern Florida.  Photo: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS  This Ear tree in Goldenrod (Seminole county) Florida has multiple stems and fills this back yard. Photo: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS 


This distinctive tree has seed pods shaped like a human ear.  I recall when I first moved to Orlando, vacant lands there often had these scraggly compound-leaved trees with curious, hard seed pods.  I have a friend from Orlando that remembers having Ear Pod “wars” as a kid – these were heavy missiles when flung at another person.  


The Ear tree in Florida is a non-native species.   Here it is generally considered undesirable because of wind damage, branch dieback with weak limbs and many messy seed pods. It is usually removed when new developments are built.



Comparing the species


The Guanacaste tree’s natural range is from Southern Mexico through Central America and extends into the northwest tip of South America .  It is well adapted to the dry climates and shallow rocky soils found in many areas of Central and South America .  Botanists call this an evergreen tree in its native range.


While these areas on the Pacific coast get similar annual rainfall amounts as does Florida, their precipitation is bunched into just a few months in the mid-summer. Strong breezes are likely to blow in this range, but hurricanes are uncommon on western lands of Central America. 


  Left: the foliage of Enterolobium cyclocarpum is a  doubly - compound leaf.  Spring flowers are inch-wide white "powderpuffs."

Right: seed pods of this tree are hard, distinctively shaped pods that contain up to 20 hard seed. They give the tree its English common name - Ear Tree.

Photos: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS 

Hugh Wilson, TAMU

Enterolobium seed pods found in Costa Rica (R) . Another one (R) was brought in to our Florida Extension office. (should this go to Disney World?)

Photos: Dan Culbert, UF/IFAS 


Ear trees were introduced as a curiosity to Florida. The UF Herbarium reports that the Ear Tree has been found in Lee, Manatee,  Orange, and Osceola counties.   I have personally seen them in Seminole Okeechobee and Indian River counties as well.  Other reports have now come in from Pinellas and Highlands Counties. 


A news report from the aftermath of Hurricane Frances reported the Florida Champion Ear tree, which covered nearly an acre of ground in Sarasota, was blown over during this 2004 hurricane.  UF Forestry professor Dr. Mary Duryea suggests that in Florida the Ear tree should be considered moderately weak as far as hurricanes are concerned. 


Some persons would consider the Ear Tree as invasive because it can rapidly grow from spreading seed pods.  UF has an invasive plant review process, and in March 2007, it concluded that this plant has not demonstrated invasive characteristics.


Under Florida’s conditions of seasonal cool temperatures and soils that are wet through a considerable part of the year, the Ear tree is deciduous.  


Isn’t amazing how one plant can be appreciated as the right plant in the right place, but vastly unadapted in the wrong environment. Viva el Arbol Guanacaste, and remove those Florida Ear trees!



If you need additional information on the Guanacaste or Ear Tree or more on  poisonous pasture plants, please contact your local Extension agent or County Master Gardeners.   GO GATORS and Go Global!

Trade names, where used, are given for the purpose of providing specific information. They do not constitute an endorsement or guarantee of products named, nor does it imply criticism of products not named. The Florida Cooperative Extension Service - Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer authorized to provide research, educational information, and other services to individuals and institutions that function without regard to race, color, sex, age, handicap, or national origin.  Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Nick Place, Dean. Last update: 03/31/2015


Condit, Richard.  Enterolobium cyclocarpum.  In: The CTFS guide to the tree species of Panama.  Panama: Center for Tropical Forest Science, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, 5/2007.  http://ctfs.si.edu/webatlas/findinfo.php?specid=2625&leng=english

Duryea, M.L., E. Kampf, R.C. Littell and Carlos D. Rodríguez-Pedraza. 2007. Hurricanes and the Urban Forest:  II. Effects on Tropical and Subtropical Tree Species. Arboriculture & Urban Forestry: 33(2):98-112.  PowerPoint available on-line at: http://treesandhurricanes.ifas.ufl.edu/powerpoint.html 

Harmon, Patrick.  Enterolobium cyclocarpum  Common Name: GUANACASTE. In Trees of Costa Rica's Pacific Slope.  Escazu, Costa Rica: Country Day School,2006. http://www.cds.ed.cr/teachers/harmon/page60.html 

Hayden, W. John. Flora of Kaxil Kiuic (Yucatan). Richmond: University of Richmond, June 2006.  http://oncampus.richmond.edu/academics/flora-kiuic/e/enterolobium%20cyclocarpum.html 

Meerow, A.W. and Black, R.J.  Enviroscaping to Conserve Energy: Trees for South Florida [EES-42].  Gainesville: Florida Cooperative Extension Service, 9/2003.  http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/EH142

Rocas, Anibal Niembro.  Enterolobium cyclocarpum. in: Tropical Tree Seed Manual Xalapa, Veracruz, México: Instituto de Ecología, A.C., 1/2003.  http://www.rngr.net/Publications/ttsm/Folder.2003-07-11.4726/PDF.2004-03-03.4055/file 

Starr, Forest &  Starr, Kim   Enterolobium cyclocarpum Elephant's earpod.  Hilo, Hawaii: Hawaiian Ecosystems at Risk project (HEAR), 4/07.  http://www.hear.org/starr/hiplants/images/thumbnails/html/enterolobium_cyclocarpum.htm 

Wittinger, D.  Ear Pod Tree, Elephant's Ear, Monkey Ear - Enterolobium cyclocarpum.  Bryan/College Station, Texas: Dave's Garden Website, 5/2007. http://davesgarden.com/pf/go/66198/index.html 

Wikpedia. Enterolobium cyclocarpum,  5/7/2007.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enterolobium_cyclocarpum