Master Gardener Volunteer Program team member
Looking for an amazing pop of color and texture in your Florida yard? Consider the impact of a flowering tree. Specifically, the orchid tree.
A member of the Bauhinia genus, which includes approximately 350 varieties of showy, flowering trees and plants, orchid trees are non-natives, hailing from southern China. Amazing shades of fuchsia with magenta with red accents in super-sized, orchid-shaped flowers make the orchid tree an almost-irresistible addition to your garden. This tree is too big for a small yard, though, and best suited for a large property or as a single specimen in a medium-sized landscape.
The orchid tree was introduced as an ornamental tree in 1936. Bauhinia aculeata, the white orchid tree, and Bauhinia variegata, the mountain-ebony variety, are fast-growing and tolerate intense humidity and heat, thriving in nearly all landscapes in Florida growing zones 9B thru 11.
They are considered invasive in south Florida, labeled as a plant of caution for central Florida (which includes Sarasota), and deemed as not a problem in northern Florida. Both IFAS and the Florida Invasive Species Council (FISC, formerly the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council) list Bauhinia as a Category 1 invasive species. Unfortunately, these varieties have escaped cultivation and presently are displacing native plants. The culprit is the prolific, long seed pods which are easily distributed by birds and wildlife. There are no known biological control agents for this tree.
The University of South Florida recommends removal of this showy tree. Removal of the tree and root system is imperative, and may include the use or herbicide treatment and treating the lower trunk root system below the stump line. The bottom line is if you already have an orchid tree, you must consider judicial pruning with removal and disposal of seed pods before they can reproduce.
Growing without guilt
If you covet this specimen and truly want one, take heart. There is a variety just for you, one that grows without guilt and unwanted spreading: Bauhinia x blakeana. This is a sterile, non-seed bearing variety, now now cultivated in many areas. It derives from a cultivar developed at the Hong Kong Botanical Gardens in 1914.
Bauhinia x blakeana produces color from winter through spring, with breathtaking purple flowers as large as 6 inches across. This tree is perfect for providing color all winter long. The large gray-green, butterfly-like leaves are attractive, and the long, droopy branches create a soft shape which is easily maintained. And, this spectacular shade tree fits well into a mixed shrubbery border.
NOTE: Make sure your grower provides you with a guarantee that will replace a mislabeled tree if your specimen produces seed pods!
Plant in a full- to partial-sun location, with plenty of room to spread out, making sure to plant at least 8 to 10 feet from the house. Fertilize three times annually—in spring, summer and autumn—with a good granular fertilizer.
Blakeana works well with an understory of any of these plants: dwarf oyster plant, jasmine minima (Asiatic jasmine), Aztec grass or liriope, Japanese boxwood, foxtail fern, blue porterweed, Indian hawthorne, or green island ficus. They may hide some of the dropped blossoms as mulch.
Remember, though, a flowering tree will keep you outside cleaning debris as the blossoms fall.
If you still doubt that blakeana is the flowering tree for you, some alternatives include: silk floss tree; Tabebuia species and varieties, including ipe, pink trumpet, gold, and silver; royal poinciana; Peltophorum (yellow jacaranda); magnolia; and ylang ylang (found in Chanel® No. 5 perfume).
If you are looking for a delightful small flowering native, the geiger tree, with its orange blooms, should be studied. Cassia and Frangipani also add color and a tropical look to your property, and are particularly suitable for small lots. Most of these trees’ flowers attract butterflies, pollinators, and birds.
- hort.ifas.ufl.edu/database/documents/pdf/tree_fact_sheets/baublaa.pdf (pdf)
- plants.ifas.ufl.edu/plant-directory/bauhinia-variegata/#:~:text=orchid tree was introduced as,and southern peninsula of Florida
- edis.ifas.ufl.edu/st091#:~:text=(orchid tree) is invasive and,be used in north Florida
- blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/leeco/2018/02/19/q-a-2/ The University of Florida Extension Service, IFAS – Lee County
- bugwoodcloud.org/CDN/fleppc/plantlists/2019/2019_Plant_List_ABSOLUTE_FINAL.pdf (pdf)
- edis.ifas.ufl.edu/st087#:~:text=One of the hardiest of,, bilobed, dark green leaves
- sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/media/sfylifasufledu/sarasota/documents/pdf/hortres/2015_HortRes_FYN_Plant_Selection_Guide_2015.pdf (pdf)
About the Author
Karen Pariser is a UF/IFAS Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Sarasota County, a graduating member of the Class of 2010.