Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hong Kong Orchid Tree Not an Orchid at All

By Lee Potts
Orchid Specialist

The Hong Kong Orchid tree impresses The Garden’s visitors year round with its incredible canopy that stretches over 30 feet wide and features delicate branches that drape over the walkways with six-inch, heart-shaped leaves. As beautiful as this canopy is, it’s during the winter that this tree becomes even more impressive — by producing an almost endless supply of magenta-purple flowers nearly as big as your hand for up to five months.

Although orchid has become an established fixture in this tree’s common name — and is a reference to the flowers’ resemblance to other orchids — The Hong Kong Orchid tree is actually a closer relative to the common garden pea.

The Hong Kong Orchid tree, botanically known as Bauhinia blakeana, is considered to be a natural species since it is sterile. Until a recent discovery of a lone tree in Hong Kong, it was believed that
none of these trees produced seed. Because of this, it is possible that all Hong Kong Orchid trees originated from one single tree cultivated by the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens in the late 1800s.

Although it is still debated today, Bauhinia variegata and Bauhinia purpurea are commonly thought to be the species that produced Bauhinia blakeana, which was discovered in 1880 by a French priest on the shore of Hong Kong Island near Pok Fu Lam. Many reports lead us to believe that this discovery was of a single Bauhinia blakeana which is the only one discovered in the wild. In 1908, the first scientific description was made by S.T. Dunn, superintendent of the Botanical and Forestry Department of Hong Kong, who assigned this tree to the genus Bauhinia and named it after Sir Henry Blake, British Governor of Hong Kong from 1898 to 1903.

By 1914 the Bauhinia blakeana was being introduced outside of The Hong Kong Botanical Gardens on a wider scale. It is often recognized from its image that appears on the Hong Kong flag and coins. In addition, a statue of this plant is on display in Golden Bauhinia Square in Hong Kong. With the beauty of the year round foliage and winter purple magenta flower, we consider this tree to be a highly valued tropical treasure.

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