Bauhinia Orchid Tree: A Unique Family of Trees, Shrubs and VInes

Unique is the word for Bauhinias, a varied family of immense interest and charm. You can grow them as shrubs (from small to large sizes), trees or vines. 

Their foliage makes them an outstanding part of any landscape. Each leaf is two-lobed, each lobe usually rounded, but occasionally pointed – suggesting the imprint of an ox hoof. 

Colorful blooms of the orchid tree Bauhinia Blakeana

Flowers are showy and appear over a long period of time. With different species, you can enjoy bauhinia flowers the year-round.

Outdoor culture of most bauhinias is limited to Florida, the Gulf Coast, and east Texas. 

Two Bauhinias Species For Container Culture

However, two of the smaller shrubs are fine for container culture anywhere, as you can keep them to four or five feet. 

These are Bauhinia acuminata (dwarf white orchid tree) and Bauhinia forficata (Brazilian orchid tree), both with white flowers. 

Bauhinia acuminata, the snowy bauhinia, is the more attractive because the large, pure white blossoms last several days, while those of Bauhinia forficata barely hold up for a single day. 

Still, where you can grow these in the ground, you might have definite use for B. forficata because of its spines. It would make an impenetrable hedge along a boundary line. 

Both species bloom from early summer to late fall but B. acuminata is the heavier bloomer and is a special delight at night in the garden – luminescent is the word.

The Delicate Vine Bauhinia Saigonensis

Bauhinia saigonensis is a delicate vine with miniature leaves and orchid-like flowers variegated reddish-purple and white. They are produced in clusters during summer and fall. The vine is a fast grower, supporting itself by tendrils. 

Since it is so light and airy, it would do no appreciable harm to shrubs if you allowed it to scramble over them, but the over-all appearance is not exactly aesthetic. 

Give it a fence or arbor and enjoy the fine tracery of foliage and flowers against the sky. Cut back severely – to within a foot or two of the ground – after flowering because leaves drop in winter and the branches die back partially, anyway.

Dormant vines are not usually cherished in subtropical areas, but poor care has contributed to a widespread avoidance of vines in general.

More On Vines:

This is unfortunate as they provide a decorative effect unequaled by any other type of plant – if you handle them properly, and that is no great problem.

The red bauhinia, Bauhinia galpinii (red orchid bush), is a large scrambler you can train as a shrub, or let it go its own way as a vine. 

If you prefer it as a vine, there is no need to provide support. The plant makes a heavy trunk capable of supporting itself, unless you let it get to be ten to 15’ feet tall in which case you would be wise to brace it. 

A specimen like this is a magnificent and unforgettable sight. Two-inch brick-red flowers resembling nasturtiums form large clusters from late spring to fall. 

For some, the red orchid bauhinia beats the bougainvillea and has the added virtue of not being temperamental about flowering – a frustration you have undoubtedly experienced if you have ever tried growing bougainvillea

In south Florida, prune back after flowering. On the Houston-Jacksonville line, wait until late February or early March. And prune only when the plant becomes too massive and unmanageable. 

By periodic pruning, you can also make a handsome symmetrical shrub of the red bauhinia.

The Orchid Tree

The orchid tree (to 15’ or 20’ feet) is one of the most common and colorful ornamentals in central and south Florida. The flowers look like cattleya orchids and have the same sweet fragrance. 

Two species go by this name and the easiest way to distinguish them is by the blooming season. 

Bauhinia variegata blooms from late winter into spring, while Bauhinia purpurea flowers in late fall. 

The flowers of B. variegata are variegated purple and white – and there is also a pure white form. 

The flowers of B. purpurea can be purple, pink, or variegated, too. The fall-blooming species is the better one for cooler areas as it has a chance to flower before frost interferes. 

All too often, cold prevents buds of B. variegata from forming.

Hong Kong Orchid Tree – Bauhinia Blakeana

The Hong Kong bauhinia (Bauhinia blakeana) burst on the market in the late 1950s and is still a sensation, as well it should be. 

The six-inch, wine-purple, fragrant flowers of this tree are rated the most striking of all bauhinias – but that depends, naturally, on individual taste.

Since the tree does not set seed, only grafted plants were available at fancy prices. Now that there are plants grown from cuttings, the tree has come within the reach of more gardeners. 

And, believe it or not, plants start flowering when only a foot high in 6”-8” inch pots, so you can grow this for about three years in a container anywhere. 

Flowering season is winter, when there is a scarcity of exotic blooms. The tree is hardy outdoors to about 25° degrees Fahrenheit but is not worth the risk in north Florida. 

It starts off as a straggly shrub so you have to cut off lower side limbs and train to one trunk by staking.

Quick Tips For Bauhinia Plant Care  

All bauhinias need sun for maximum flowering. But they are not fussy about soil. 

Feeding

Feed young plants once a month with a liquid fertilizer from March to October the first year you set them out – any complete fertilizer is good

After that, one annual feeding in spring is enough. Bauhinias are also wonderfully drought resistant and save on the water bill.

Propagation

  • The easiest means of propagation is by seeds that are generously produced by most species. 
  • The Hong Kong bauhinia, as already mentioned, sets none; and the red bauhinia matures very few. 
  • Seeds of the other species mentioned germinate quickly and there is no need to pre-treat them if they are planted fresh. 
  • If you allow them to harden, then you must file or soak them to aid germination. 
  • Air layering is sometimes successful. 
  • If you have a constant mist system, try cuttings of the Hong Kong and red bauhinias.

Winter Leaf Drop

Last, and really least, all bauhinias tend to drop part or all of their leaves at some time during the winter. 

This unsightly period is relatively brief, for which there is more than ample compensation in the spectacular and lengthy season of bloom.