Today in Key West: White Orchid Tree

Up North, trees with flowers so large that they are showy individually, even from a distance, are pretty much limited to magnolias. Not so in the tropics, where scores of arboreal species produce blooms as large as your hand. Below, the stunning display of a white-flowered orchid tree. Ravishing!


Bauhinia variegata Alba overall 030518 915


There are hundreds of species of "orchid" trees. Trees in the Bauhinia genus are unrelated to true orchids, but the size and luxuriant petals of their flowers can rightly lay claim to the word. 


Bauhinia variegata Alba flower 030618 915


A pink-flowered form is often planted, partly because the rosy petals have dramatic lighter veins. But as the flowers mature, the petals fade noticeably. My preference is for this tree, Bauhinia variegata 'Alba'. Its petals are pure white—think of them has having already faded to pure white from the get-go—so the aggregate coloring of the flowers stays powerfully consistent throughout the tree's many weeks of display. 


Even the foliage is showy. Each large leaf has a curiously curving bi-lobed layout that, rightly, suggests yet another common name: camel's-foot tree.


Bauhinia variegata Alba foliage 030518 915


Up North, white orchid tree could be grown in a container that's moved into shelter for the winter. (In a garden, it isn't hardy much farther north than coastal Georgia.) Of course, the tree would need to thrive long-term at a much smaller size; perhaps eight feet tall, tops, including the container.


While the foliage is exceptional, it's the flowers that would make the tree worth the effort. Would they be possible? I don't see why not, especially as, even in the tropics, this species usually enjoys a period of leafless winter dormancy. It's far easier to overwinter a tree whose bare branches don't need to hog precious light in an already-crowded greenhouse. 


I'll begin growing Bauhinia variegata 'Alba' this season; if I can order a large enough specimen, I may be able to feature its first flowers in 2019. Stay tuned.




I'll profile Bauhinia variegata 'Alba' when I can feature it as a containered conservatory specimen in bloom up North.


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