The wild orchid tree is more formally known as the Bauhinia variegata. The Bauhinia genus has more than 200 species, some more famous than others, but all are very striking in appearance. The orchid tree is a deciduous to semi-evergreen tree, usually growing to about 30 feet tall. It has large, heart-shaped leaves. The stars of this tree are its spectacular, orchidlike flowers, in shades of pink, orange, red and white.
Linnaeus chose the name “Bauhinia” in 1753. The inspiration for “Bauhinia” came from the paired leaves of the orchid tree, which appear identical when folded together. Linnaeus named the tree for two Swiss-French botanists who were identical twins. They were Gaspard Bauhin (1560 to 1624) and Jean Bauhin (1541 to 1613).
Coming to America
The Bauhinia is an ornamental tree that thrives in subtropical and tropical regions. It is indigenous to India and China and is a member of the Fabaceae (pea and bean family). Its introduction to the United States took place around 1900, in Florida.
The Bauhinia galpinii is named for Ernest Galpin (1858 to 1941) who was a South African plant collector. Its common name is Pride of De Kapp for the De Kaap Valley in northeast South Africa. It is not named for the Cape of Good Hope as some assume. The Bauhinia galpinii is also known as the red bauhinia, or African plume. It is an evergreen that grows to about 10 feet in height. Its 3-inch-long leaves are an ideal complement to the colorful red-orange flowers of this plant.
The rain forests and tropical areas of Brazil and Peru, eastern Paraguay and northeastern Argentina are home to the Bauhinia forficata or as it is better known in Portuguese, “Pata de Vaca.” The name means “cow’s hoof” for the shape of the leaves that characterize this 20- to 30-foot tree with its drooping white flowers. The leaves tend to upstage the flowers in the area of popular herbal medicine. In 1929, the first known clinical study of its kind in Brazil reported on how the leaf’s chemical properties lowered blood sugar levels. Studies in 1931, 1941, 1945, the mid-1980s, 1999, 2002 and 2004 have further examined the chemical properties of the leaves and their medicinal benefits. The leaves of the Bauhinia forficata are used in herbal tea, as a diuretic for kidney and urinary disorders and to combat high cholesterol.
Voyage of Discovery
A French missionary discovered the Bauhinia blakeana, or Hong Kong orchid tree, in the 1880s, in the grounds of an abandoned house near the Island’s Pokfulam district. It is named for Sir Henry Blake, governor of Hong Kong from 1898 to 1903. Its pink flowers give this tree a fairytale appearance as it grows to heights between 20 feet and 40 feet, with large, heart-shaped leaves of between 6 and 8 inches in length. Today, the Bauhinia blakeana grows in the Hong Kong Botanic Gardens.
Taking inspiration from the tree, Golden Bauhinia Square in Hong Kong commemorates the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.