This spectacular rainforest tree reaches about 30 m high. It belongs to subfamily Sterculiaceae within the mallow family, Malvaceae, and is a fast-growing and highly specialized species, colonizing rock outcrops and exposed areas with shallow soils.
The large heart-shaped leaves and green bark enable it to take full advantage of high light levels in these open areas during the rainy season. Then, as temperatures and light levels increase to blistering levels during the dry season, it sheds its leaves but continues to photosynthesize through the resilient bark. Little or nothing is known about the root system but it may also be highly adapted, penetrating rock crevices so efficiently that even small seedlings survive the dry season.
Hildegardia barteri occurs from Côte d'Ivoire to southeast Nigeria and Cameroon. Though of little use for timber, the pale soft, lightweight wood is good for roofing shingles as it contains gum that swells when wet, making the roof watertight. The bark is resinous and very fibrous, making it useful as a source of adhesive, cordage and cloth. In December and January the tree is covered in small tubular red flowers which are a rich source of nectar for bees, butterflies, and sunbirds. Trees are precocious, flowering when about three years old, at which age they are about 2-3 m tall. After flowering, inflated reddish-gold fruits develop. They resemble pea pods and are 5 cm long, containing a single seed that resembles a groundnut. Seeds can be eaten raw or cooked, or pressed to extract edible oil. In keeping with its adaptation to open areas, seeds need light for germination and seedlings grow rapidly.
Hildegardia barteri can be propagated by cuttings, bud grafting and by seeds. It has a neat conical habit and does well in cultivation, especially in rocky or stony ground where other trees may not do thrive. The eye-catching display of scarlet flowers and golden pods is a welcome sight over Christmas and New Year.