Stemmadenia littoralis (Apocynaceae) | Milky Way Tree, Lecheso (Dogbane Family) | Origin: Wet coastal forests of Central & South America
A small tree reaching only twenty five feet at maturity, Stemmadenia littoralis makes a perfect choice for a small garden. Here at our small garden we have three, two inside the Oak Grove, and one in front of the Administration Building. What most people think of as “blooming” plants, especially flowering trees, require a lot of sun to thrive, but the Stemmadenia does best in shade to part sun. In the shade, the dark green, glossy leaves grow larger and greener, and the blooms stay on the tree longer without wilting.
The species name “littoralis” refers to the fact that this plant comes from littoral or coastal-forests. Because of this, the trees are adapted to salty conditions and alkaline soil, two things that can make or break a plant here on Florida’s coasts. The common name “lecheso” refers to the milky latex that oozes from broken or cut leaves and stems. This latex contains poisonous compounds that can cause skin irritation in some people, and is a characteristic defense mechanism of the Apocynaceae family.
The flowers resemble white pinwheels two inches long and emit a pleasant fragrance. The tree does just fine in the ground but makes an excellent container specimen as well. It needs to be protected from frost, but the show of flowers, which goes on throughout the year, combined with the perfect layered form the branches take on without pruning, make it worth the hassle.
Text by David Troxell