Brachychiton acerifolius

Illawarra Flame Tree

Family: Malvaceae

A large deciduous / semi-deciduous tree to 35 m in height, with a broad canopy-spread.

It is found in NSW mainly in coastal areas, as far south as the Shoalhaven River (possibly extending to Batemans Bay, northwards in disjunct patches, extending into Queensland where it also has a coastal distribution up to the Cape York Peninsula. 

It is typically found in subtropical and tropical rainforest close to the coast. It can naturalise in bushland from plantings. 

The trunk is smooth, green or grey-green in colour. 

Brachychiton spp. can have simple or compound leaves. However, all NSW species have simple. In this species, leaves are alternate, up to 30 cm x 25 cm, are dark glossy green and highly variable in shape, from broad-lanceolate with entire margins to tri-lobed to strongly 5 lobed with an overall ovate lamina, with petioles up to 20 cm long.

Brachychiton spp. tend to produce showy flowers in axillary panicles. In this species, flowers are bright red to pink-red or coral-red, campanulate (bell-shaped) with the 5 petals fused into a tube, with 5-lobes at the apex in a star-shape formation, to 20 mm long by 20 mm wide. Flowering occurs in October and typically the tree deciduates, leaving trees in full flower without foliage, creating a very showy and conspicuous display. The deciduous nature of plants varies enormously. 

The fruit is a follicle which strongly resembles a pod (somewhat resembling that seen in Castonospermum australe (Black Bean), to 10 cm long on a stalk to 8 cm long, containing seeds inside about 1 cm across with reportedly irritating hairs attached (exercise caution here). 

In the garden

An attractive tree in the right place and it has a long history of been grown in parks and gardens. In a “good year” the Illawarra flame tree is arguably the most spectacular of all Australia’s native trees. Flowering may take around 5-8 years from seed-grown plants. The tree is hardy in a wide range of soils with ample moisture and is best suited as a street tree in coastal areas. They can create very generous shade.

There has been a gardening trend through the decades to grow this species with the exotic *Jacaranda mimosifolia and the native Grevillea robusta, as all 3 are large trees and all 3 will flower at the same time each year. The desired colour combination of red, orange and purple is very interesting(?)

It may be a poor choice for the smaller home garden, near houses or bushland, as these trees can cause problems from their large woody fruit, leaf drop and deep roots that clog drains. They can also establish into native vegetation.  

This species is a host plant for the larvae of several butterflies, including the pencil-blue, shining pencil-blue, common aeroplane and tailed-emperor butterflies. The seeds are eaten by Australian king parrots and the Regent and Satin bowerbirds.

Trees and seeds available commercially.


Propagation from seed is relatively easy without any pre-treatment. The seeds are surrounded in the capsule by irritant hairs and are best collected using gloves.

Other information

Brachychiton are mostly trees, often with swollen trunks, sometimes multi-stemmed shrubs, evergreen or deciduous and sometimes monoecious (have male flowers and female flowers in separate structures on the same plant). The genus contains 34 species. Australia has 30 species occurring in all mainland States, chiefly in tropical & subtropical regions. NSW currently recognises 3 species. 

In NE New South Wales, hybrids between this species and B. discolor have been found.

This species likely grows in areas where fire is not an issue (at least historically). It likely regenerates from seed if adult plants are burnt. 

Brachychitonfrom Greek, brachys (βραχύς) meaning “short” and chiton (χιτών), meaning “a tunic”, referring to the bristles that surround the seeds in the fruit; 

acerifoliusfrom Latin – Acer – referring to the Maple genus and -folius, meaning leaves – suggesting the appearance of the foliage is similar to that of some maples.

This species is not considered to be at risk of extinction in the wild. 

Wrigley, J.W. & Fagg, M.I. (2001). Australian Native Plants – Propagation, cultivation and use in landscaping. 4th edition. New Holland Publishers, Pty. Ltd. Australia.

Australian Native Plants Society (Australia) – Brachychiton acerifolius profile page https://anpsa.org.au/plant_profiles/brachychiton-acerifolius/

NSW Flora Online (PlantNET) – Brachychiton acerifolius profile page: https://plantnet.rbgsyd.nsw.gov.au/cgi-bin/NSWfl.pl?page=nswfl&lvl=sp&name=Brachychiton~acerifolius

Gardening with Angus – Brachychiton acerifolius profile page https://www.gardeningwithangus.com.au/brachychiton-acerifolius-illawarra-flame-tree/ 

By Jeff Howes. Editing and additional text by Dan Clarke