I park my car every day near a beautiful tree with reddish-purple, orchid-shaped flowers. With its orchid-like flowers, Bauhinia x blakeana (Hong Kong Orchid) is a widely recognizable tree throughout the Southern California landscape, and popularly frequented by hummingbirds. It can also be identified by its leaves that fold at night, with a distinct shape of a cow’s hoof. Semi-deciduous, the leaves drop in preparation for the fall to early spring, a showcase of flowers. A profuse flowering tree even at a young age, its many global connections make the Bauhinia x blakeana a true symbol of goodwill during the holiday season.
I remember finding a treasure trove of forgotten plant facts while researching alongside AHBE Landscape Architects Principal Evan Mather, FASLA years ago in the Monrovia Nursery Company basement. I recollect it was hard to stay focused being surrounded by an eye-catching 1960’s black and white ad about the Bauhinia x blakeana. “100’s of Orchid flowers from October to March,” the magazine ad promised.
Bauhinia x blakeana is a sterile tree, though there are messy seed varieties like Bauhinia purpurea (Butterfly Tree) available. On a quiet fall twilight, you can hear the seedpods of Bauhinia purpurea opening; it sounds like popcorn popping in the microwave.
My grandfather was a plant hunter, and during his lifetime he secured many cuttings during his journeys. My grandfather had a passion for raising Cymbidium (Orchid), propagating plants, and traveling the world. It’s tough to find even one new plant patent and trademark it, but my grandfather and uncle alone found dozens for Monrovia Nursery Company to add to their inventory of great plants. A specimen of Bauhinia x blakeana’s leaves and flowers was collected from a tree from Monrovia Nursery Company by someone at the Los Angeles Arboretum. The exhibit was then submitted to the herbarium located at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum. It was labeled “Bauhinia blakeana Dunn”. The collected specimen has since been transferred to the University of South Florida.
In 1908, British Botanist Stephen Troyte Dunn wrote the first scientific entry about the tree. At that time, he documented that only a few cuttings existed at the Hong Kong Botanical Garden. In 2005, using genetic testing, it was determined that the tree’s parentage was Bauhinia purpurea and Bauhinia variegata. Since it was only recently determined as a hybrid, you may see it still listed as Bauhinia blakeana rather than the recently corrected Bauhinia x blakeana.
My own Bauhinia x blakeana tree almost burned down to the ground during the Colby Fire. The tree nearly died again when our irrigation system was damaged by either local trash trucks or by a driver who failed to slow down at the turn. Even so, our grafted tree is still going strong, sprouting suckers periodically that pop from the base, requiring quick pruning from time to time.
Story has it that the first Bauhinia x blakeana was found in the 1880s by a French missionary who found it growing in the landscape of an abandoned house along the coast. During the transfer of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Hong Kong elected the storied tree’s flower to grace their currency and flag. Now over 25,000 Bauhinia x blakeana have been planted throughout Hong Kong, and even more throughout the world, including the United States and Australia.
Its young existence could be potentially be threatened yet again. A disease like Emerald Ash Borer – which has devastated 16 species of ash trees throughout the Midwest and Northeastern United States – is always a risk, Age, too, could impact the tree. Every Bauhinia x blakeana originate from a single parent plant, making it more and more susceptible to pest problems, fungal diseases, and bacteria. A crowdfunding campaign is in action to raise money to trace the genome of the tree. You can learn more about the project here.
When I bought my grandparents’ house, I also purchased a treasure trove of horticultural beauties, including the special Bauhinia blakeana growing in their yard. It makes sense that the tree in my yard is probably a cutting from an original Bauhinia blakeana. Planted by my grandfather somewhere during the time of the tragic fire and floods of 1968 fire and 1969 flood, each one of these plants offers deeply rooted stories, both of the plant and the people who planted them. Sadly, I never got the chance to hear them all before my grandparents passed away.
Thankfully some stories about the plants living within the terraced acre of my garden are captured within the receipts of aged yellow receipts found inside a kitchen junk drawer, alongside other handwritten notes my grandmother had slipped into her many books. Beauty may sell the story, but Bauhinia blakeana’s global heritage makes it an amazing symbol of world peace during the holiday season.