Here’s a colorful, tropical, native ornamental for your garden that doesn’t require dangerous pesticides or chemical fertilizers, nor lots of irrigation in the dry season. It’s called Yellow Bells or Yellow Elder (Tacoma stans). Costa Ricans call it vainicillo, or little vanilla.
This hardy bush is found in most regions of Costa Rica and easy to identify with its clusters of yellow, bell-shaped flowers and serrated, compound, pinnate leaves with 5 to 13 leaflets. This plant is a member of the family Bignoniaceae, and is related to Roble Sabana (Tabebuia rosea) and Cortez Amarillo (Tabebuia chrysantha), which has similar flowers.
Yellow Bell is a patio ornamental that can also be seen along many sidewalks and avenues. By the way, you can often collect seeds from these bushes’ narrow capsules, which somewhat resemble miniature vanilla beans. The older capsules turn gray and split open, releasing the small brown seeds encased in a white paper sheath.
These seeds can be planted in small pots or recycled plastic cups with holes in the bottom and filled with potting soil. In about a week, the seeds should germinate, and in a few months the young seedling plants can be transplanted to a permanent site around the home.
Another form of propagation is to take woody stem cuttings from a bush and start them in containers in the greenhouse or plant them directly in the soil where you would like them to grow. The latter should be done in May or June, when the rains keep the soil continually moist.
Yellow bells grow and flower best in full sun conditions and can tolerate salt breezes from the beach. They also grow in a wide variety of soils and require very little in terms of soil fertilization. Of course, additions of aged compost and foliar fertilizers help to keep these bushes blooming and growing vigorously.
It is common to find them planted as a shrubby, living fence or as a freestanding specimen on the patio. They can be pruned yearly to keep them compact and low, and this hardy native plant doesn’t require special pampering, nor does it suffer from any serious insect problems or plant diseases.
And the secret? According to Hernán Rodriguez Navas in his book “La Utilidad de las Plantas Medicinales en Costa Rica” (“Uses of Medicinal Plants in Costa Rica”), the leaves and bark of yellow bells have been used by indigenous people for centuries to treat pain, fevers, and infections. Tea made from the inner bark is a tonic to aid in the treatment of diabetes, kidney aliments and rheumatism. Researchers have named the active ingredient tecomanine.
So there you have it: A beautiful, ornamental and natural medicine right in your backyard with less work, better health and more natural harmony in your garden.
Read more of Ed Bernhardt’s monthly Home Gardening columns here.
This article first appeared in 2015