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What Is an Orchid Tree?

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  • Written By: Deneatra Harmon
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 15 October 2014
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The colorful orchid tree, which comes from the Fabaceae family, has several common names. This semi-deciduous tree grows best in subtropical and tropical areas, but it can recover from winter frost and drought. More than 200 varieties of orchid tree species exist under the genus Bauhinia. A native of Asia, the orchid tree blooms by late winter or early spring when provided with the required nutrients. The tree may offer ornamental qualities in some areas, but is considered invasive in others.

The Bauhinia variegata, or the orchid tree, is marketed as the purple orchid tree, mountain ebony, butterfly tree, and the poor man's orchid. It shares some of the same showy qualities as its cousins, the peacock flower and the royal poinciana. The tree derives from the Fabaceae family, also known as the Leguminosae, or bean family, because it grows flattened pods that extend no more than 12 inches (approximately 30.5 cm) in length. What's different about the orchid tree is that it is known to bloom for many months.

Some of the orchid tree's leaves may drop during periods of winter drought, making it somewhat deciduous. Generally, the perennial plant thrives in subtropical and tropical regions where temperatures rise to above 40° Fahrenheit (approximately 4.5° Celsius). It can still survive or recover from frost, specifically when temperatures fall to below 25° Fahrenheit (-6.6° Celsius). The orchid tends to grow as a shrub when planted in cooler climates.

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Hundreds of Bauhinia species are available for planting by way of seeds or cuttings. The purple Bauhinia, for example, is considered the most common and most attractive of all types of orchid trees. Another popular tree, the Hong Kong orchid, classifies as a sterile hybrid that doesn't produce pods. The Candida variety blooms white flowers instead of purple.

The native habitat of the purple Bauhinia includes southeastern China, northern India, and Vietnam. Because the orchid is a tropical tree, it may grow anywhere that reaches an above-freezing climate such as 25° Fahrenheit (-6.6° Celsius) and up. As for nutrients, typical soil characteristics include acidic soil with an even amount of moisture. Too much water, or salty and limey soil conditions may be harmful. Full sunlight helps the orchid perennial tree grow up to around 40 feet tall (about 12.1 m), with an average foliage spread as wide as 20 feet (approximately 6 m).

Leaves of the tree resemble cow hooves, and flower petals emerge into overlapping patterns of purple, white, lavender, and magenta. The flowers actually bloom first by late winter, followed by the leaves and flattened bean pods by spring. Overall, the entire Bauhinia purpurea tree fully develops by early summer.

Some organizations have labeled the Bauhinia as an invasive tree species because it has been known to spread into other plant habitats and disrupt their ecology. Nonetheless, the purple orchid serves it purpose in tropical and subtropical landscapes, as well as street trees. It even provides shade on a warm summer day.

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