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  • Writer's pictureAmy Christmas

A Hawaii Artist discovers beauty and more in Island Sourced Materials!

Bauhinia, Orchid Tree-Bauhinia sp.

-4 Things you may not know about this Kauai plant

Forest & Kim Starr, Starr Environmental

1. What is it? Bauhinia is a tropical evergreen plant and has more than 500 different species with a range of growth habits, but in Hawaii, we are most familiar with the Orchid Trees. The trees are typically small to medium reaching12-40' in height with a spread of 10-20’. Bauhinia is a bit lanky in its growth habit and has a smooth grey bark. The name Orchid Tree is somewhat deceptive, because although the flowers look like orchids, there is no relation, instead Bauhinia is a member of the Legume family. The leaf of the tree is most unique looking, giving you a definitive way to identify it. It looks like a butterfly or camel footprint with veins radiating from the base to both sides of the leaf. The flowering is on new growth, at the tips of the branches. The aromatic flowers can differ in color and size but have 5 petals and many with its 5th petal being larger and speckled or stained with a darker pink. The blooming can be all year, but typically takes place mostly from December to March and is followed by a thin, long green pod which eventually matures to be a dark brown and is filled with 15-20 flat round black seeds. The pods can remain on the tree for months. There is a variety called Hong Kong Orchid which is sterile plant, therefore unable to produce seed pods and is replicated by cuttings. The Orchid Tree grows fairly rapidly and requires pruning when young to establish a shape. They are sun lovers and prefer moist soil, but once established, will tolerate some drought, shade and wind. It holds onto it’s leaves so is considered to be an ideal street tree or used as an accent tree. It can be grown in many different elevations, whether they be lowlands, rainforests, scrublands, swamplands or dry deciduous forests. Bauhinia is frost sensitive. There are concerns of some varieties becoming invasive.

2. Where did it come from? The Orchid Tree is native to much of Eastern Asia, with the Hong Kong Orchid asexual variety being known to be from South China and Hong Kong. Bauhinia has many beneficial medicinal uses including use for stomach ailments, and when mixed with rice-water, as a topical aid in infection. Additionally, its leaves, flower buds, flowers and young seed pods, can be eaten as vegetables, pickled, and used in curries. Its bark is a source of tannins, fiber and is used in dyeing. The wood is used for light construction, fuel, and pulp. Bauhinia also have been used in Agroforestry for erosion control and dune stabilization. In Hawaii, it was introduced in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. Both Joseph Rock and Dr. Lyon of University of Hawaii are mentioned in early distribution of seeds. Small numbers of 14 different species were planted in forestry preserves on Oahu, Maui, Molokai, and the Big Island from the late 1920's to late1950's, As a member of the Legume family, it also is a great nitrogen fixer for soil. Many species are planted in the U.S. in Florida, Texas, California and Caribbean. Other varieties have been planted in South America, Africa, South Pacific as well.

3. When is the best time for collecting?

We collect the seed pods 2 times a year after they have matured and turned brown. They have to be cut with a long pruner and removing them does not harm the tree, because they naturally fall off one at a time eventually. We like to get them before they have weathered too much to preserve the quality. They are stored in open air containers but kept away from heat. They tend to curl as they age and are split open.

4. How are the collected plant parts used?

II haven’t seed anyone use the pods or seeds for anything. We use the pods on both our baskets and pouches.

*Amy is a University of Hawaii Certified Master Gardener Emeritus, has a Bachelor of Science-Landscape Horticulture degree from Ohio State, has been a volunteer tour guide at NTBG, and is a self-proclaimed "plant nut"! She and her husband Ron have been making and selling their baskets for more than 20 years.



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