Gardening Articles by Russell Fransham

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Bauhinia variegata
Bauhinia variegata
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Bauhinia red
Bauhinia variegata - red form available now
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Bauhinia purpurea
Bauhinia purpurea
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Bauhinia 'Blakeana'
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Bauhinia galpinii
Bauhinia galpinii
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Bauhinia

Driving South from the Gold Coast on the Pacific Highway in Spring some years ago I spotted brilliant pink and white flowering trees growing along rural fencelines which at first glance looked like peach and plum trees in full flower. On closer inspection I discovered they were in fact orchid trees, Bauhinia variegata.
Their orchid-like perfumed flowers emerge throughout the Spring on bare branches. In dry subtropical climates most tropical trees drop their leaves in Spring because it’s the driest time just before the Summer monsoon arrives, but in NZ our Springs are usually wet, so the Bauhinia leaves stubbornly remain on the tree, stealing some of the limelight from the flowers. However despite this minor drawback, the orchid tree thrives here in NZ wherever citrus can be grown. It is native from Northern India across Asia to Southern China. The flowers of Bauhinia variegata can vary from pure white through every shade of pink to red and are about 8cm across. The name variegata refers to the two-toned flowers rather than the leaves which are usually a soft greyish green. The flowers are followed by long leathery pods with large flat seeds which germinate easily when fresh, the seedlings flowering in two or three years from germination.

The genus Bauhinia, named after the sixteenth century French botanist brothers Bauhin, consists of about two hundred species of trees, shrubs and vines characterized by twin-lobed leaves shaped like butterfly wings. Many of them are fully tropical, but the most spectacular of them are the hardy ones which thrive in warm temperate conditions.
Bauhinia purpurea is another one of these with more slender pink or red petals. A cross between these two species, known as “Blakeana” or the ‘Hongkong Orchid Tree’ is the most famous of all the Bauhinias. Its flowers (10cm to 12cm) and leaves are bigger and bolder than either parent and it has been adopted as the national flower of Hongkong. It is planted as a spectacular small street tree in every tropical city of the world where it flowers almost continuously throughout the year.
Bauhinia ‘Blakeana’ is a sterile hybrid so it produces no seed and must be grown from cuttings, no easy task in this climate, so it is still relatively rare in NZ. Despite its rarity, it is a vigorous, hardy 5m tree here once established.

South Africa’s best-known Bauhinia is “Pride of the Cape”, Bauhinia galpinii. Its orange, nasturtium-like flowers are produced throughout the Autumn along the horizontal branches on a low-growing broad shrub if it is grown in full sun, but among other shrubs it can become sprawling and vine-like, scrambling through its neighbours to reach the sun before flowers will develop. This hardy fellow is deciduous through Winter so will tolerate quite hard frost once established.
Bauhinias respond vigorously to being pruned hard no matter how big they have become and because most tree Bauhinia’s flowers are produced only on the tips of branches, regular light pruning to stimulate branching will also increase flowering. An elegant fountain-shaped specimen tree can be sculpted from a gangly juvenile with judicious wielding of the secateurs.

(Text and photography copyright © Russell Fransham 2010)