The Hong Kong Orchid Tree, Bauhinia x blakeana, is a hybrid of Bauhinia purpurea (Butterfly Tree) and Bauhinia variegata (Mountain Ebony). It is a small tree, which can develop an irregular shape if it’s not pruned in the first few years. It is a common ornamental tree, prized for it’s aromatic flowers, which continuously bloom from November to March.
Naming and identification
The Orchid tree was named after Sir Henry Blake, the British Governor of Hong Kong from 1898 to 1903, and botany enthusiast. The flower of the tree is now the official floral emblem of Hong Kong.
You won’t see this tree in the wild, though you may find it’s parents. The leaves and flowers look almost identical to B. purpurea, but a quick inspection of the flower will help differentiate between the two. The flowers of B. blakeana have 5-6 pistils, where B. purpurea have only 3-4.
The orchid tree is sterile, so the Orchid tree will not produce and seeds or fruit. As it is only produced through cultivation, it is also labelled a cultivar. It originated from Hong Kong, and it is believed that all trees of this species are decedents of the same tree. The first individual was located at the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens.
Interestingly, one Hong Kong Orchid tree has been observed producing seeds. This could mean that a mutation has occurred within that individual. It’s unclear how viable the seeds are, but it speaks volumes to the power of evolution and the ability of life to promote itself.
Though the flowers are radiant, I was drawn to the tree by the butterfly-shaped leaves. In Hong Kong the bi-lobed leaf is known as the “clever leaf”. The first time I saw it I knew I needed to collect a few to press as souvenirs. As it turns out, it’s not uncommon for people to press them to make bookmarks. Using these bookmarks is said to bring good luck academically. At night, the leaves fold in half, like a closing book, which may have something to do with the symbolism.
I think that the amount of effort people put into cultivating and maintaining a tree that can’t even reproduce says a lot about the way we place value on species. The flowers are beautiful and the leaves are interesting, but so are those of the B. purpurea.
Yes, the lack of fruit and seeds mean that they’re not quite as messy but other than that there’s little benefit. The lack of genetic diversity makes it vulnerable to pests and less resilient, and yet we insist on maintaining it. Though we enjoy gardens and landscaping, ecological integrity is not always highly valued.
Brown, S.H. Bauhinia x blakeana. University of Florida. Accessed HERE.
Fox, A.M., Gordon, D.R., Dusky, J.A.. Tyson, L. and Stocker, R.K. (2005). UF/IFAS Assessment of the Status of Non-Native Plants in Florida’s Natural Areas. Accessed HERE.
Gilman, E.F., and Watson, D.G. (2015). Bauhinia blakeana: Hong Kong Orchid Tree. University of Florida. Accessed HERE.