Bauhinias: Orchid trees with Butterfly flowers... and leaves

by Alex Butova, the Witch of Herbs and Cats

Alexandra Butova is our columnist, journalist, and photographer, living in Riga, Latvia. She has has been with TopTropicals since Day One (2002), writing about magic plants, travel, and of course cats - from the CatNation she belongs to. Alex is in charge of website.

Bauhinias: Orchid trees with Butterfly flowers... and leaves

...Bauhinias are beautiful and diverse. Their flowers are showy and slightly perfumed; their leaves always cleft in the characteristic Bauhinia manner... And they are gorgeous - all together and each in their own way...

Have you seen butterflies? Yes, of course. Have you seen orchids? Yes, of course. And have you seen a tree with flowers that look like both a butterfly, and an orchid? Here is the one... in fact, many of them! Orchid trees - Bauhinias.

Bauhinia is a large genus in the e large flowering plant family Fabaceae, with a pantropical distribution. There are many species of Bauhinia, most indigenous to India. But tey all have two things in common. The first one is the splash of color on one or more of the petals and the second one is shape of the leaves - "cow-foot", "double-kidney-shape", or simply butterfly wings!

Bauhinias are beautiful and diverse. Their flowers are showy and slightly perfumed; their leaves always cleft in the characteristic Bauhinia manner... And they are gorgeous - all together and each in their own way... Today's spotlight is about showy Bauhinia variegata and Bauhinia monandra...

Bauhinia variegata

Bauhinia variegata is a medium-sized tree (20-40 ft tall and 10-20 ft wide) with a dark-brown, smooth bark. The leaves are shaped a little like a cow's hoof.

The leaves fall during the cold season and right after that large, slightly scented flowers appear. If trees keep their leaves on a few branches, flower sprays are borne only on the leafless branches.

The large flowers in sprays bearing two or three blooms, either from the ends of branches or from the axils of the leaves. Five long arched stamens, terminating in large anthers, are surrounded by long, pointed petals, narrowing at the base. Each petal is delicately veined and one or two are smudged at the base with a deeper color. The flowers are reminiscent of showy orchids, with five irregular usually slightly overlapping petals in shades of magenta, lavender or purplish.

The blooming period lasts from winter until early summer. The long, narrow pods are often as large as 1ft in length containing ten to fifteen seeds. These ripen in May and June after the flowering season is over. Young pods, also leaves and buds, are used as vegetables.

The tree yields a useful gum and from the seeds an oil is obtained. The bark is used for tanning and dyeing, also as fibres. The timber is good and as many parts of the tree have medicinal uses. The trees are sometimes used to make 'living fences' - they are pruned and the long pliable branches are arranged into the framework of a fence.

The tree is very fast growing and requires very little care. It is also pretty cold tolerant, mature trees can withstand light frost. Another form - Bauhinia variegata Alba (Candida) has white flowers and is much more cold tolerant than regular purple form.

These trees can be grown in large containers, but due to rapid growth, be prepared to end up with at least 15-25 gal pot within a few years.

Bauhinia variegata is highly valued in Southern lanscapes for its beauty. It is a winter joy that will always be in your garden.

Bauhinia monandra

Bauhinia monandra - Napoleon's Plume. The species name monandra refers to the fact that this flower have only one stamen. This tree grows naturally in Madagascar, but have been naturalized in Burma, Australia, Christmas Island, the Caribbean, southern USA and the Pacific Islands.

It is an evergreen small tree with a rounded crown; it can grow 20 ft tall. Its smooth, gray bark can become scaly and red brown on older trees. The leaves are shaped like butterfly wings, rounded, and split, forming two equal lobes. 

Napoleon's Plume Orchid tree is a pretty rare in cultivation, spectacular variety with cream-and-red flowers. It is the most "orchid-like" looking and exotic Bauhinia. This plant is very fast growing: it starts flowering in very small size in 1 gal container, just one year from seed! Unlike most Orchid Trees that are winter bloomers, this one blooms almost year round.

The large, 5-petaled orchid-like flowers occur in short racemes; four of the spoon-shaped petals are pink and dotted with red or purple markings, while the fifth petal is mostly red or purple. The flowers range from 3-4" in diameter, have only one fertile stamen per flower, and have a calyx splitting along one side. When the tree is covered of flowers it looks spectacular! Flower will start out as a pale yellow then turn to pink the next day with the center petal streaked with magenta.

The seeds come in dark dehiscent pods 1" wide, 1 ft long. While still on the tree, they split open with force, scattering the seeds.

Young leaves and young seedpods are edible. They are cooked and eaten as a vegetable. Seeds are a useful source of vitamin A. The protein content of the seed was 33.09%, comparing with soya and groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea). The seeds also yield 21.45% soluble carbohydrates, comparing favorably with soybean 20.7% and peanut 24.6%. It also yields 3.25% fibres.

The pods, roots, bark and leaves have medical properties, and used in traditional medicine of indigenous people of Pacific islands. In a temperate climate, this charming plant can be pruned to a small size and kept as a houseplant in a container providing a sunny spot.

Bauhinia monandra blooms almost year around, it can turn your garden into a coloful paradise and make you feel like living on exotic island...


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Read more about Bauhinias:
Bauhinias - Orchid Trees
Bauhinia Acuminata
Bauhinia blakeana: Spectacular Hong Kong Orchid Tree - Eye Candy and "Clever Leaf"