Bauhinia – king of the shrubs

Written by Life Green Group & Catherine Browne

The genus Bauhinia was named after botanist brothers, Johan and Caspar Bauhin, of the 16th century. The species was named after the identical twins because the bi-compound leaves, when folded together, are identical. One of the Bauhinia’s common names is camel foot as its leaves look like the footprint of a cloven hoofed animal. It also gets the common name, orchid tree, from the genus’ stunning ornamental flowers.

These shrubby plants are easily cut to form a tree with a single stem. They make for wonderful flowering screen plants and can be pruned to form a hedge. Landscapers also like to plant a variety of shrubs together for a more wild and unkept look.

South Africa is home to five different species of bauhinias and here Green Life Group and BotSoc share some information about them with you:

1. Bauhinia tomentosa (Yellow tree bauhinia)

Bauhinia tomentosa - J.M.Garg
© J.M. Garg

The yellow tree bauhinia naturally occurs in Natal, characteristically occurring on dunes, but does very well in Johannesburg. With its bell-shaped, sunshine-yellow flowers that look somewhat similar to the flowers of snot apple and lagoon hibiscus, it is a beautiful indigenous addition to your garden.

It flowers from November to April. The roots are non-invasive, and it does really well in a sunny spot on a patio. Alternately, plant it in combination with one of South Africa four other bauhinia species or other shrubs. If pruned effectively it can form a single stem. It is happiest in full sun with regular watering.

The larvae of the orange barred playboy butterfly pupate in the pods and the shrub is much loved by birds and bees too.

2. Bauhinia bowkerii  (Kei white bauhinia)

Bauhinia bowkerii 22-08-2007 212 Andrew Hankey
©Andrew Hankey
Bauhinia bowkerii 22-08-2007 212 Andrew Hankey (1)
©Andrew Hankey

Turn your Eastern Cape garden into a mini-conservation area for the Kei white bauhinia! This little tree is a rare endemic from the bushveld region (Kei River) of the Eastern Cape.

It is definitely regarded as one of the more striking bauhinias. Its branches arch very gracefully and it flowers violently from Halloween to Christmas. It can also survive the winter rainfalls of the Western Cape.

3. Bauhinia petersiana subspecies macrantha (White bauhinia)

The white bauhinia occurs in the northern regions of South Africa and flowers best in full sun. It is an evergreen water-wise choice for your garden!

Seeds were historically used as a coffee substitute which is why its Afrikaans name is ‘Koffiebeesklou’ which translates to the ‘coffee cattle foot’. Cattle foot is the common Afrikaans name for all bauhinias due to the hoof print shape of the leaves.

The Bauhina petersiana is spilt into two subspecies. The macrantha subspecies has large crinkly flowers and occurs in the northern parts of South Africa. The other subspecies is the Bauhinia petersiana petersiana from Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Angola.

4. Bauhinia galpinii (Pride of De Kaap)

Bauhinia galpinii- Monique mcquillan
©Monique Mcquillan

Possibly the post popular of all the local bauhinias is Pride of De Kaap. This over-sized shrub gets it common name, Pride of De Kaap, from De Kaap just south of Nelspruit.

With regards to gardening the Bauhinia galpinii is a fantastic barrier plant and thrives in big gardens. In wild South Africa the shrub acts as a climber, growing up trees but in a domestic setting it can be pruned into shape to look more like a tree.
It produces wonderful coral flowers from September to March and will flower ad hoc throughout the year which is probably where the bush gets its Afrikaans name: vlam-van-die-vlakte.

Butterflies love it and it will be one of the few plants flowering in times of drought. Pride of De Kaap is very easily cultivated from seed and will grow quickly, but protect the seedlings from frost for the first three years if you are in an area like Johannesburg.

5. Bauhinia Natalensis  (Natal bauhinia)

Natal - GD Photography
©GD Photography

The Natal Bauhinia is much smaller than its indigenous cousins. It has charming white flowers with a maroon strike through its petals. From November to April the bush is blanketed with white blossoms.

It has lovely butterfly shaped leaves, it is sweet and versatile, and a perfect addition to your Natal garden and the butterflies with love you for it.

Watch out for Invasive Bauhinias

South Africa has two invasive bauhinias from Asia: the orchid tree (Bauhinia variegata) and the butterfly orchid tree (Bauhinia purpurea).

These two trees were planted as ornamental trees because of their attractive flowers. They are now listed as  1B category invasive plants, meaning they are cannot be imported, traded, grown and should be destroyed immediately.

Invader trees are damaging to local ecosystems as they compete with local trees and provide no benefit for indigenous fauna.

The good news is you can plant an indigenous white bauhinia instead of the orchid tree and still get a similar effect in your garden.

We hope that you enjoyed and learnt something from this blog. BotSoc is passionate about nurturing biodiversity and encouraging indigenous gardening and awareness of our floral gems. You too can join the BotSoc family to help spread awareness, support conservation and appreciate nature, among lots of other good reasons. So sign up today for your BotSoc membership.

 Information sources:

Life Green Group







Published by


The Botanical Society of South Africa (BotSoc) are an NGO conserving and educating about biodiversity for over 100 years.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s