Cooperative Extension Service 
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Extension, P.O. Box 68, LaBelle, Florida 33975-0068  Phone (863) 674-4092

Hendry County Horticulture News

Orchid Trees - Our Beautiful Bauhinias

November marks the beginning of the flowering season for one of our most lovely and conspicuous flowering trees.  Orchid trees (Bauhinia spp.)are popular for the profusion of orchid-like flowers that are mostly produced during our winter season.  Orchid trees are distinguished by their twin lobed leaves that resemble the print of a cow's hoof.  These common trees often go by other names including the mountain ebony or Hong Kong orchid tree.

Bauhinias belong to the pea family Leguminosae and include a number of trees and shrubs which are native to a number of tropical and subtropical areas including India, China, Malaysia, and parts of  tropical Africa.  The genus was named in honor of John and Caspar Bauhin, who were Swiss herbalists and botanists of the 16th Century.

Orchid trees are fairly rapid growers and are widely used as free standing specimens or as a back drop for smaller homes and buildings.  Most species are fairly compact in size and fit in well on the typical suburban home site.  Orchid trees may also be incorporated into shrubbery borders to add interest and seasonal color.  Bauhinias are quite variable in flower color and range from white to pink- purple and even rich reddish rose purple.  Although one of their main attractions is the profusion of floral color produced in the cooler months, some species do produce blossoms into the warmer months.

There is a good deal of confusion regarding this species and a number of distinct species are often commonly lumped together and referred to as Hong Kong orchid trees.  There are actually several different species of Bauhinia grown in Florida.  One of the most common is Bauhinia purpurea, which is quite variable having flowers in a wide range of colors and shapes.  This tree produces clusters of fragrant narrow petaled blooms that may range in color from pure white to various shades of purple.  B. purpurea is distinguished as the first of the orchid trees to blossom in the fall while the leaves are still on the tree and by the fact that the flower petals never overlap.

Another popular variety is Bauhinia variegata, which  flowers next bearing flowers from around January to April.  This species can be identified by it's large nearly orchid like blossoms with broad overlapping petals which are produced during or after leaf fall.  Flower color varies from shades of purple to pure white in the variety ‘Candida'.

One of the most spectacular Bauhinia blakeana, which is the true Hong Kong orchid tree,  produces large six inch fragrant orchid-like flowers of rich reddish to rose purple during the late fall and winter.  This rather rare and highly sought after variety never sets seed and can be propagated only by grafting or air layers.  The Hong Kong orchid tree is one of the most tender of the bauhinias and is quite sensitive to cold.

There are a few shrubby forms that are sometimes used as ornamental hedges or borders.  B. galphini or Pride of the Cape is a sprawling shrub that produces clusters of brick red orchid-like flowers during the summer months.  Another summer bloomer, the butterfly flower B. monandra, is characterized by pink flowers with purple markings.

Bauhinias will perform best in full sun or high, shifting shade such as that found under widely spaced pines.  Orchid trees are tolerant of a wide range of well drained soils.  Some bauhinias may be a bit slow to establish but once well rooted all grow rather quickly with little care.  After establishment in a well prepared site, orchid trees require no special care other than occasional fertilization and water. In alkaline soils, orchid trees will often exhibit leaf yellowing and interveinal chlorosis which can be corrected by periodic applications of a chelated iron fertilizer.

Some of the more common species of orchid tree produce large numbers of fertile seed and may become weedy if their progeny are not kept in check.  This can easily be accomplished by removing seed pods before maturity or by pulling up the young seedlings before they become established.  Early pruning is useful in training bauhinias into a desirable tree-like form.  Without pruning, orchid trees will often grow into sprawling shrub-like forms with undesirable low branches.

In cooler sections some thought should be given to planting orchid trees in sheltered spots as all are some what sensitive to cold temperatures and may be severely damaged by hard frosts.  They will however come back even if the tops are killed down to the ground.  Bauhinias have few pests.  Caterpillars may damage foliage at times.  If this is unacceptable or becomes unsightly, use of one of the biologically friendly Bacillus thuringensis formulations will save the day.

If you are looking for a hardy low maintenance flowering shade tree to add spectacular winter color to your landscape, you might want to consider one of the orchid trees to grace your yard.  Good luck and good gardening.

Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service.  Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975,  e-mail - or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598.  You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle.   Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.

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