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Candlebush
candlebush
Candlebush, photographed at Okeeheelee Nature Center, West Palm Beach, Palm Beach County, in April 2017.
candlebush
 

We see candlebush, Senna alata, mostly as a landscaping plant, a brightly bloomed addition to a butterfly garden. In parts of the world, it's a medicine cabinet.

Candlebush is a large shrub or small tree native to southern Mexico, Central America and South America that's managed to grab a foothold in the wilds of Florida and a handful of other states. In some parts of the world where it's been imported, candlebush has become an invasive pest but not so much here, where it's rarely found growing in the wild. It's more likely to be encountered in a butterfly garden of a nature center than trailside in the backcountry. It is host to the larvae of the sleepy orange, cloudless sulphur, and orange-barred sulphur butterflies.

The source of the name is self evident — large, vertical spikes (racemes, technically) of brilliant yellow flowers that resemble candles. They even have a waxy feel to them. In Florida, candlebush is seen mainly as a shrub perhaps six to 10 feet high, but on its home turf it can be a small tree growing to 30 feet or more, with a four-inch trunk. It has massive compound leaves that can be 30 inches long, with seven to 14 pairs of leaflets.

In South Florida, candlebush blooms April through November. The flowers produce large, winged seed pods that extend out horizontally from the spike and turn dark brown or black when they are mature. Each pod can have 50 to 60 seeds, and when they open, the next generation of candlebush drops to the ground. So it can be on the weedy side, with so many sprouts. It is a rapid grower: it can go from seed to six feet tall in the span of a single season. It grow so fast, that in places to our north, it can be effectively grown as an annual. It can withstand cold to about 20 degrees; colder temperatures will kill it, but the seeds will sprout back the next season.

 
 
candlebush
 

In its native range, candlebush tends to grow in moist places where there is full sun, including river banks, forests and forest edges, ravines and disturbed areas like pastures and roadsides. Outside of its natural range, in places where it's considered invasive, it will form dense thickets that will crowd out native plants. Its thick canopy also blocks out sunlight. In pastures, it's a particular problem because it's toxic. It's known to kill goats that eat the leaves. It's widely spread throughout the Pacific, where it's considered invasive in some places, including Hawaii, Hong Kong and Austrailia. It's a difficult plant to remove because it sends out suckers.

But as we said, in many places candlebush is the source of many medicines. In some places, it's known as ringworm cassia, because of its antifungal properties. It's also known to have antibiotic properties, effective on the skin against gram positive bacteria. In parts of South America, the leaves are eaten as a laxative. It's used to treat worms, diarrhea, gynecological problems, liver problems and to purify the blood. In Africa, it's used for stomach pain during pregnancy, hemorrhoids, blood in the urine, convulsions, heart failure and more. In India, it's used as a mouthwash, bronchitis and liver problems. In places, the leaves are toasted to make coffee.

Other common names for candlebush include, candlestick plant, candlestick senna, ringworm cassia, candlestick, Christmas candle, emperor's candlestick, empress candle plant, candalabra plant, candalabra bush and candletree. It is a member of Fabaceae, the pea family.

Photographs by David Sedore
 
 
map for candlebush
  United States Department of Agriculure (USDA) distribution maps for candlebush.  
 
Links for Candlebush
Institute for Regional Conservation Natives for Your Neighborhood Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants USDA PLANTS Database Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants
  Flora of North America     Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
All photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.