An Invasive that Works: The Hong Kong Orchid Tree Rewards with Plentiful BloomsApr 20, 2022 08:42AM ● By ERIK ENTWISTLE
Among the numerous flowering trees that thrive here in Southwest Florida, the fast-growing Hong Kong orchid tree (botanical name Bauhinia blakeana) is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding. The trees are a familiar sight when driving on our local roads, as they have been extensively planted on median strips where their numerous large blooms offer a stunning display. The Hong Kong orchid also makes a welcome addition to the home landscape, where it can be featured as a large specimen tree or planted in rows for screening.
The history of the tree itself is fascinating. As the name implies, it was first identified in Hong Kong (in 1880) as a sterile hybrid of two parent bauhinia (purpurea and variegata) not native to Hong Kong itself. But after extensive local propagation via cuttings and grafting, the tree became associated with Hong Kong, so much so that today the flower is the city’s official symbol, and a design of it appears on the new flag that replaced the previous one when China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong on July 1, 1997.
At first we did not have room to plant Hong Kong orchid trees on our Sanibel property. Then hurricane Irma passed over Southwest Florida in September 2017 and felled or damaged a number of trees, including two large olive trees on our fence line that had to be replaced. With a goal of quickly reestablishing a privacy screen, we decided to plant a row of several Hong Kong orchid trees about 10 feet apart and see what would happen. Less than five years later, the trees are now already taller than the house, having formed an evergreen wall that is covered in blooms from November through March.
It is difficult to imagine a tree growing as fast and producing as many blooms as the Hong Kong orchid, and it has other winning characteristics as well. Even though it is not native to this area, as mentioned earlier the tree is sterile and therefore not an invasive threat, and the huge, pinkish-purple, orchidlike flowers attract numerous pollinators. Preferring full sun and well-drained soil, the Hong Kong orchid is drought-tolerant and bothered by few pests. It is true that the spent flowers and leaves create a mess underneath and around the tree, but it seems a fair tradeoff for such a lengthy abundance of flowers.
When planting, choose the site carefully, as the Hong Kong orchid can quickly fill any space available to it (typical size for a single mature tree is 20-40 feet in height and 25 feet in width). Our trees produce numerous suckers that need periodic pruning, and they send new shoots out in all directions, requiring minor to extensive trimming in order to avoid an unkempt look. You will also want to monitor the trunk development and direction of growth, and prune accordingly to achieve the shape you desire.
We are fortunate to be able to grow Hong Kong orchid trees here and to enjoy their generous, stunning blooms right into the middle of the winter season. Its big, bold blossoms add welcome color to your life for months on end.
Pianist, instructor, and musicologist Erik Entwistle lives and teaches on Sanibel. He writes the Stay Tuned column for TOTI Media. A favorite hobby is growing vegetables and fruit using sustainable gardening methods.