History of the Royal Poinciana Fiesta
History of the Royal Poinciana Tree and its Celebration in Southern Florida
By: Stephen D. Pearson
January 11, 2019
Known and loved for the striking beauty of their bloom, royal poinciana trees are cherished and planted throughout the tropics and subtropics. However, they are endemic to Madagascar, an island nation off the eastern coast of Africa whose climate is similar to south Florida in that it is both warm and characterized by wet and dry seasons. Its discovery in Madagascar is attributed to Wenceslas Bojer in 1824. Seeds were taken first to Mauritius and then to England, as reported enthusiastically in the Curtis Botanical Magazine. Bojer gave the species the botanical name of Poinciana regia, in honor of Philippe de Lonvellier de Poincy, who served as the governor of the French West Indies in the 17th century. The species was later reclassified under the Delonix genus as Delonix regia, but its original name was carried on as its common name of poinciana or royal poinciana. It is also commonly known as flamboyant, flame tree, peacock flower, and queen of the flowers.
The origin of the tree in Southern Florida remains a mystery. One of the tree’s greatest admirers, Helen Eidson, once found an article from 1903 referring to a tree in bloom on Poinciana Avenue in Coconut Grove. Given that street’s name, it is likely that it was a site of some of the earliest trees that were planted in this area. However, the oldest documented tree in south Florida is one that is still living at The Kampong of the National Tropical Botanic Garden. That tree was planted in 1917 by Marian Fairchild, the wife of Dr. David Fairchild, when the Fairchilds occupied this property as their home.
Dr. Fairchild also planted some of the early trees of Miami in the Brickell Avenue area when he was establishing an experimental garden for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In Color in the Sky, Edwin Menninger mentions seeing these trees when he came to Miami in 1922.
Royal poinciana trees were called “common” from the Keys to the Redland by Charles Torrey Simpson in his 1926 book Florida Wildlife. In a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Paul Ransom, it is interesting that Georgine Mercer stated that poincianas were some of the few trees left standing in the Keys following the major hurricane that hit there in 1926.
Besides their beauty and storm resistance, another reasons that poincianas were loved and widely used during these early times is that they were natural air conditioners for our early settlers. Since the trees are deciduous, they allow the sun to shine through and warm a house or other building during the winter months when the trees are leafless. On the other hand, they make excellent shade that keeps an area cooler during the hot summer months. Trees were best located on the east and west sides of buildings for best advantage in controlling temperatures.
In 1929, Gerry Curtis, the Superintendent of Parks for the City of Miami, planted the famous poinciana trees that lined South Miami Avenue from 15th Road to 27th Road. This created one of our area’s most spectacular displays of poincianas, and it was sometimes called “the Route of the Poincianas.” During the late spring and continuing through the summer, painters and other artists were regularly seen working along the avenue, trying to catch the vibrant beauty of these trees and their flowers when they were in bloom. Even today, poinciana trees and flowers continue to be a favorite subject for local artists. *1
During the 1930s, poincianas gained several important admirers and advocates. One was Wade Livingston Street, who so admired their beauty that he approached the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce about greater use and plantings of poincianas. Although blind by 1936, his vivid memory of this tree’s beauty and enthusiasm were contagious, and a crusade was started to use poincianas for municipal beautification in Coral Gables. Using specimens that Mr. Street donated, it is believed that 3,000 poincianas were planted during the summer of 1936, and it is easy to see the results of that effort throughout the historic Gables today.
Another important early admirer and advocate was Mrs. Robert G. Lassiter of Miami Beach. She was the President of the Miami Beach Garden Club and started another planting campaign in 1937 that resulted in many of the old trees still seen on the Beach today. Her efforts also came to the attention of Major Harvey Payne, the chair of the civic affairs committee of the Miami Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber appointed Major Payne, Mrs. Lassiter and Mr. Street to plant more trees in the City of Miami and to form motorcades to annually make trips in Dade County to see the poincianas in full bloom. Through their efforts, a Royal Poinciana Tree Day was proclaimed by Miami Mayor Robert R. Williams on July 20, 1937. According to the Miami Herald, the major focus this first year was to plant “Thousands of royal poinciana trees” in the Metropolitan Miami area in cooperation with garden clubs and other civic organizations, and “trees are available to those who desire to cooperate in the project.”
On May 29, 1938, a Miami Herald account indicated that a “Poinciana Tree Pilgrimage” was set and that music by the University of Miami Symphony would be part of a Sunday program for a “pilgrimage to the illuminated royal poinciana tree at Kendall”, 11 miles south of Miami on the Federal Highway. This tree and the land where it was situated were owned by Dan L. Killian, a former county commissioner, who would speak that evening. This tree had a spread of 66 feet and was believed to be the largest poinciana in the county at that time. It was also announced that pilgrimages would be made nightly to the tree through the following Friday, and Miamians and visitors alike were invited to attend.
On June 4, 1939, the Miami Herald announced the start of “Royal Poinciana Week” as proclaimed by Miami Mayor E. G. Sewell, and that, to start the celebration, a motorcade of more than 500 cars was scheduled to be led by Mayor Sewell at 4:30 pm from the Orange Bowl to the “shrine tree,” referring to “the gigantic and stately beauty, located at the home of Dan Killian in Kendall.” The article also stated that “the Mayor’s proclamation gives first official sanction to the observance in honor of the tree, and is the first official recognition given the poinciana as the fiesta tree of south Florida, where it blooms in glorious color and glory.” Noting that the trees were coming increasingly into bloom, especially along South Miami Avenue, the article dramatically described the trees as “flaunting red and orange draped branches to the heavens, a riot of charming indescribable color and beauty.”
During the years 1937 to 1939, the poinciana celebrations were sponsored by the Miami Chamber of Commerce poinciana celebration committee. Mr. Street was chairman of the committee, and he was ably assisted by Mrs. Lassiter, who became affectionately referred to as “Poinciana Lady” for her untiring efforts on behalf of the tree and its festival.
In 1940, the Annual Royal Poinicana Festival was established as a week-long celebration. Mrs Murray Forbes Wittichen became the chairman and continued in that role through 1942. Importantly, 1940 marked the first year that a Royal Poinciana Queen was chosen and a coronation pageant took place at the Bayfront Park Amphitheater where Virginia Allen, a student at the University of Miami, was coronated as the first Queen.
During the war years of 1943 to 1945, the City of Miami Recreation Department kept the festival going with programs in Bayfront Park. The Annual Royal Poinciana Festival was incorporated in 1946 as a non-profit organization whose purpose was to sponsor the festival as an ongoing annual event.
This corporation continued to sponsor the Poinciana Festival annually through 1960 and, although the event waxed and waned during these years, many years were marked by wonderful celebrations that included things like performances by the Caesar LaMonica Orchestra, paired with poinciana seedling giveaways, at Bayfront Park. As a result of the many poinciana seedlings given to interested citizens over the years, poinciana trees are today found in all types of neighborhoods in South Florida, from the richest to the poorest, and in all ethnic and racially distinct areas. It is a tree whose beauty is truly universal and that speaks to all, regardless of race, color, creed, sexual orientation, or economic status. It is a tree that reminds us all of the importance of a healthy environment and the beauty of nature, if we just take the time to stop and look.
Some of the planting highlights during these years were that, in 1948, poinciana trees were planted along SW 15 Road from South Miami Avenue to SW 5th Avenue; the City of Miami’s Parks Department planted poincianas in the middle parkways of some areas of Highway No. 1 in 1949; and the Dade County Parks Department planted them in various wayside parks between Miami and Homestead, as well as in the central esplanade of Crandon Park, during 1950. Also, in 1949, the City of Miami Parks Department planted poincianas along SW 14th Avenue at all street intersections from SW 8th Street to SW 24th Street.
The corporate sponsorship ended in early 1961, and the City of Miami and its Committee on Beautification took over sponsorship of the Royal Poinciana Festival that year. The Beautification Committee decided to rename the Festival the “Royal Poinciana Fiesta” as a token of welcome and friendship for the many immigrants who were coming to the south Florida area from Cuba during those years. E. Albert Pallot was Chairman of the Miami Beautification Committee, later Miami Committee on Beautification and the Environment, at that time and he continued as Chairman for 30 years until Stephen D. Pearson became Chairman in 1991. However, the Poinciana Fiesta had many great supporters on the Committee, most notably Helen Eidson, Kathryn Gaubatz (who chaired the Fiesta for many years), Joy Finston Landy, Ruth Kassewitz, Peggo Cromer, and Larry Schokman. With a week full of events, 1987 was a particularly special year and commemorated the 50th annual celebration of the blooming of royal Poinciana’s in Southern Florida. Through the efforts of Helen Eidson, a special postage cancellation stamp depicting a Poinciana tree was created and a Long Range Royal Poinciana initiative led to the Dade County Commission naming the royal Poinciana as the “Official Flowering Tree of Dade County.”
Although Kathy Gaubatz and Steve Pearson made various appeals in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s to obtain additional funding for the Poinciana Fiesta for the purpose of growing it into a major, summer tourism event, these appeals mostly fell on deaf ears. Most people still believed that major tourism was exclusively a winter time phenomenon, or that to attract significant numbers of tourists sports or fishing had to have a major role. Although ecotourism was really starting to take off, the decision makers didn’t see the potential even as Europeans and others were stopping in Miami simply to change planes and continue on to Costa Rica and other locales considered ecotourism hotspots.
During the early 1990s, the Miami Beautification Committee continued to sponsor the Poinciana Fiesta even as funding became increasingly problematic. Sadly, even though during its final years the Committee was doing significant good work by pioneering the planting of trees along our major highways; introducing many new tree species to the public landscaping pallet; and demonstrating that trees would be healthier and longer lived if they were properly planted as young seedlings with follow up maintenance and copious use of mulch around their bases, the City of Miami’s financial crisis caused the City to cut all funding to the Poinciana Fiesta in late 1996 when it announced that no further funds would be provided for any festivals. Although City leaders said years later that it didn’t mean the Poinciana Fiesta, no one made the effort to say anything about this distinction at the time. The Committee sponsored the Fiesta again in 1997 and 1998 with the dwindling amounts of funds left in its treasury, but following the Fiesta in 1998, which was run mostly on donations from the Committee’s members, there was not adequate funding to continue.
To continue on a county wide basis the tree planting activities of the Miami Beautification Committee, a not for profit corporation called TREEmendous Miami, Inc. was started at the beginning of 1999. Although some on the board members were also those who had been active in the Royal Poinciana Fiesta, many in the new group did not feel that it was worth the effort to try to continue the Fiesta. Luckily, and through herculean efforts by Larry Schokman and Steve Pearson to keep the Poinciana Fiesta going during some years, the Tropical Flowering Tree Society (TFTS) agreed to start sponsoring and continue the Fiesta. The Society has done an admirable job with the small resources at its disposal and thanks to the Tropical Flowering Tree Society, the Poinciana Fiesta is the oldest, continuously running festival in Southern Florida.
The Tropical Flowering Tree Society is absolutely thrilled and profoundly grateful that the City of Coral Gables became a cosponsor of the Poinciana Fiesta in 2018. It is hoped that this partnership will lead to a bigger and better Fiesta whereby the Poinciana Fiesta not only becomes an event that instills great pride and an enhanced appreciation of natural beauty in our citizens, but also becomes a major tourism event that attracts people from all over the world to come see and enjoy our magnificent poincianas trees and their spectacular blooms. They are just as valuable and have just as much potential for tourism as roses in Portland or cherry blossoms in Washington D.C. for example. And as we celebrate this wonderful tree, let us unite in a greater appreciation of natural beauty and an understanding of the importance of a healthy environment. It is nothing less than vital to all of us.
2019 will mark the 82nd annual celebration of the spectacular bloom of this cherished and iconic tree. It is widely believed that there are more poinciana trees in Miami-Dade County today than in any other area of comparable size on earth, including its native Madagascar where it is even cut for firewood by desperate people living in abject poverty. So, let’s cherish and celebrate our poinciana trees and all that they represent.
I could continue and describe the fascinating evolutionary adaptations of poincianas, their horticulture, and botanical features, but I have said enough. I hope you will attend the Fiesta’s “Poinciana Workshop” to learn more about the care and culture of this wonderful tree, as well as about some of its evolutionary and botanical adaptations.
I want to thank Helen Eidson (deceased) for doing most of the research that is incorporated into this article. I also want to thank Larry Schokman (also deceased) who worked closely with me for many years as we led poinciana tours, poinciana workshops, and planted many, many trees in Miami-Dade County. Finally, I want to thank Kathy Gaubatz (also deceased) who first enlisted my help and interest in the Poinciana Fiesta, the Miami Beautification Committee, and the University of Miami’s Gifford Arboretum. They were all dear friends, and I miss them.
- Unfortunately, many of the original trees planted on South Miami Avenue by Mr. Curtis no longer survive. The reason was that tall, sodium vapor lights were later installed along the Avenue and these lights have adverse effects on poincianas. The reason is that these lights cause the trees to try to maintain full foliage during the winter when the dry season occurs and the trees do not get enough water to maintain a full canopy. Large branches started cracking off the trees during the winter, while they also did not bloom well as this species needs to rest during the dry, cool season before bursting into bloom at the beginning of the wet season that normally accompanies late springs and summers. Steve Pearson noted this problem and, in the early 1990’s, hosted meetings with Florida Power and Light Company and City of Miami officials who acknowledged the problem. They also initially agreed to change the lights after Pearson also pointed out that the lights were ineffective for pedestrian safety because the dense canopies below the lights caused the areas under the trees to be very dark at night. He demonstrated that many trees were bifurcated, with the sides receiving the light remaining in full leaf throughout the year and with few flowers, while the sides free of light would lose their leaves in winter and then bloom much more profusely. Unfortunately, Hurricane Andrew hit our area right after those meetings and both the City of Miami and Florida Power and Light had other, bigger problems to worry about. Florida Power and Light did lower and change the light configurations on three poles and the trees in those areas started doing better. However, it wasn’t until years later when Robert McCabe and Arva Moore Parks rallied their neighbors along the Avenue and got the City to replace the old lights with low, more appropriate and attractive street lights. However, some of the old trees had already died and more were badly damaged from having had to live with the sodium vapor lighting for years. Arborist Nancy Hammer reviewed the trees and determined that many needed to be removed. However, new ones were planted and the Avenue is now quickly looking better and better each year.
About the Author: Stephen (Steve) Pearson is a native of Miami who became passionate about trees and their importance to a healthy environment as a young man. He formerly served as chair of the City of Miami Committee on Beautification and the Environment and the Royal Poinciana Fiesta; is a founding member and past president of the Tropical Flowering Tree Society; is a founding member and past president of the Friends of Chapman Field; is a founding member and past and present president of TREEmendous Miami; and is a former director of the University of Miami’s John C. Gifford Arboretum.. He previously served on the board of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden for over 20 years and, today, serves on the board of the Montgomery Botanical Center. Pearson was selected by the Florida Urban Forestry Council as the state’s most outstanding individual volunteer in 1994 as a result of his leadership and planting of trees, and was awarded American Forests’ and the National Urban Forestry Council’s national Medal for Citizen Activism in 1995. Pearson continues today to be part of the leadership of TREEmendous Miami, the Tropical Flowering Tree Society, the Friends of Chapman Field, the Royal Poinicana Fiesta, and Montgomery Botanical Center.