Gardeners can find information about this impressive tree in numerous books and websites. But we have decided to publish this short paper because it is a personal perspective from an eminent parks person. The paper dates from about the late 1990s.
The genus Bauhinia embraces a family of remarkably diverse trees, shrubs and climbers found in tropical or sub-tropical climates both north and south of the equator.
With their orchid-like flowers and curious ‘camel’s foot’ leaves, most tend to be a source of curiosity rather than strong landscape features. However two of the tree species do form features in their own right and are much valued by plantsmen. There are Bauhinia purpurea and Bauhinia blakeana.
Bauhinia purpurea, which is found naturally in India, Burma, Vietnam and South China, has both the largest flowers and largest leaves in the family. Its intense purple flowers are the subject of much admiration though the tree itself tends to be untidy in shape and therefore of limited landscape value.
Bauhinia blakeana, ‘The Hong Kong Orchid Tree’, though listed as a separate species, is of mysterious origin. The first tree was discovered near the ruins of a house on the seashore of Hong Kong Island in 1908 by the Fathers of the French Mission at Pok Fu Lam. It was named after Sir Henry Blake, Governor of Hong Kong from 1898 to 1903, who was also a keen botanist. By coincidence the current IFPRA President-Elect lives on the site of the original tree.
Though believed, initially, to be a mutation of B. purpurea, B. blakeana possesses a number of distinctive characteristics in both flower and leaf form which give doubt to this theory. Though fast growing, B. blakeana rarely exceeds 6 m. in height and is characterised by a twisted stem and long, spreading, drooping branches on which can be seen a profusion of orchid-like flowers. These flowers consist of 5 spreading and unequal petals in colours varying from carmine red to burgundy-but a deep pink hue is dominant. The fifth petal of each flower is striped purple, this emphasising the orchid-like appearance.
B. blakeana is sterile, the flowers never maturing into fruit or seed. Propagation is by top grafting on to rootstock of B. purpurea.
When in flower B. blakeana is unequalled in the genus; and is therefore much valued for its ornamental qualities though its brittle branches suffer from storm damage. Today the progeny of the lone tree in Pok Fu Lam can be found ‘en masse’ throughout South China, also in Queensland, Australia and elsewhere.
B. blakeana was formally adopted as the floral emblem of Hong Kong in 1965 and features in both the government’s and Urban Council’s Coat-of-Arms. A stylised version also constitutes the logo of the Urban Council and has even been copied by a major city in the United Kingdom! When Hong Kong reverts to China in 1997 the Bauhinia will again form the emblem of the territory. This time it will symbolise the new Special Administrative Region with a small star located on each lobe of the distinctive magenta flower. Rarely has a solitary tree received more prominence in such a short time and from such humble beginnings!
R.F. POLLARD (Roger)
President-elect, IFPRA (International Federation of Park and Recreation Associations)