San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Yellow bells: Beauty and botanical medicine

Here’s an interesting ornamental that’s also become highlighted in ethnobotanic circles as a potent medicinal plant for humanity. Yellow bells, or vainillo as it’s known in Costa Rica, is a native shrub-like tree of the American tropics, and is commonly found as an ornamental in many tropical regions of the world. It is the national flower of both the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas, and is widely distributed from Florida to Brazil.

This shrub is easily identified by its 5- to 6-centimeter-long, yellow, bell-shaped flowers and thin seed capsules that resemble vanilla pods. The compound leaves are light green with serrated edges, and the willowy branches turn gray with age. It is usually found in parks, along sidewalks and in patios around the country. Nurseries sometimes offer small yellow bells plants in pots.

This hardy plant can be used for shrubbery borders or as a freestanding specimen, and can be pruned regularly to maintain a compact shape. It grows and blooms best in full sunlight and thrives in average soils in most regions of the country. Yellow bells are so hardy that they have no serious pest problems or diseases, and they need no watering in the dry season. This makes them an excellent choice for a natural tropical garden.

But there’s another big reason to grow yellow bells. Indigenous tribes long ago learned that they serve as potent botanical medicine that can be used for numerous ailments.

The shrub, known scientifically as Tecoma stans, belongs to the family Bignoniaceae, the same family of South America’s pau d’arco tree, renowned for its curative properties. Both share some of the same active organic compounds, such as tannins, alkaloids and lapachol, a powerful antimicrobial agent and cancer fighter. Tecoma stans also has its own set of compounds known as tecomanine and tecostanine, which have been shown to be effective in the treatment of diabetes, gastritis and Staphylococcus aureus infections, according to Hernán Rodríguez’s “La utilidad de las plantas medicinales en Costa Rica” (Editorial Universidad Nacional, 2000). Traditionally, indigenous people used the inner bark or cortex to treat diabetes, fevers, kidney problems, headaches and malaria, and as a digestive tonic.

Gardeners have understood “sustainable living” since long before the term became so important to our future development on the planet. Gardens can sustain us with food and natural medicine, as they have since time out of mind. Pretty yellow bells are just one of the many plants and trees we can use for sustainable living.

You’ll find that yellow bells are now in full bloom, and it’s a great time to collect seeds. If you can’t find them in your neighborhood, write me at, and I’ll send you a newsletter with details on how you can obtain a gift pack of yellow bells seeds in the mail.

Until next time, happy gardening in Costa Rica.

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