by Kyle Sweet, CGCS
The Hong Kong Orchid is a beautiful flowering tree that is the result of hybridization between a Butterfly tree, Bauhinia purpurea, and Mountain ebony, Bauhinia variegate. The species name of the tree, blakeana, is in honor of Sir Henry Blake, a British Governor of Hong Kong who enjoyed studying Botany.
Although the flowers resemble those of orchids, the tree is far from the orchidaceae family, rather being in the Fabaceae, or pea family.
As mentioned earlier, and rare in the Southwest Florida landscape, the Hong Kong Orchid tree produces large bright – reddish purple flowers from winter through spring, typically the months of January through May.
The tree is a mid-size tree with large gray – green leaves that are butterfly shaped. The canopy of the tree grows to be rounded and when fully mature can reach heights of 30-40 feet. As a medium – sized tree, there are many uses possible for the Hong Kong Orchid. It can be effective as a single specimen tree, showing off its color in the winter, as a shade tree, thanks to its large butterfly shaped foliage or a property border tree that can be planted in a row for a dramatic south Florida winter show.
Because this tree is a quick grower and does grow fairly large, there are a few planting rules to consider. Plant a minimum of 15 feet from a house, at least 10 feet from any walkway and if planting in a row, maintain spacing at a minimum of 12’ apart.
All plants require care at planting and the Hong Kong Orchid is no exception. Our island soils are often void of nutrients and the ability to hold moisture, thanks to our coarse sands. Adding a good top soil, organic peat humus, or composted manure, to the hole when planting can help your tree get off to a great start. Regular daily watering will be required when first planting, but once established no additional watering will be required. In addition to planting care, trimming care will also be needed for this tree. The long pendulous branches of this tree may too irregular when the tree is young, so trimming branch ends after the bloom cycle in early spring will allow you to shape the tree to your desired look.
The Hong Kong Orchid is not a native tree on Sanibel and can’t replace the benefits of providing habitat and food that many of our island natives provide. It can however, provide that color splash in our tropical green landscape that can fill the void between the bright flowering of other south Florida shrubs and trees which are often just isolated to the spring, summer and fall. With a little more research you might find that the Hong Kong orchid could be a great fit for you in your island landscape.