The gorgeous yellow bauhinia can produce flowers continuously throughout much of the year.

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Bauhinia tomentosa. Picture courtesy Ton Rulkens - See flickr pageBauhinia tomentosa. Picture courtesy Ton Rulkens - See flickr pageIf you are looking for a plant which grows quickly and flowers almost continuously, the yellow bauhinia fits the bill. It is low maintenance, tolerates frost once established, and is invaluable for attracting wildlife to the garden. Find out how to grow and use it in the garden below.

Many of the almost 300 species of Bauhinia, also called “orchid trees” or “camelsfoot” are popular garden subjects in subtropical or tropical regions of the world for their decorative foliage and abundance of beautiful flowers.  They belong to one of the world’s largest plant families, the legume or Fabaceae family, which has more than 18 000 species, distributed mainly across the tropics of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

This large family of plants has been cultivated since early times, not only for their ornamental displays but also for their plethora of uses – as food, medicine, fodder, and for their tannins. Several South African bauhinias are popular in cultivation including the well-known Pride of De Kaap (Bauhinia galpinii), the Natal Bauhinia, Natalsebeesklou (Bauhinia natalensis) and the Kei Bauhinia (Bauhinia bowkeri).

The beautiful yellow bauhinia (Bauhinia tomentosa) (SA Tree No: 208.1) is not threatened in the wild and is commonly found growing at low altitudes along the coast to 1 500 metres, from the Eastern Cape and southern KwaZulu-Natal to Maputoland and Mozambique. It is also found in the north eastern parts of Gauteng, Limpopo and Mpumalanga, extending into Zimbabwe, and further into tropical Africa, and as far as India and Sri Lanka. It is an important part of the coastal sand dune bush and forests, and can sometimes be found in the scrub near rocky slopes. It is also found in woodlands, bushveld, grassland and riverine thickets.

The yellow bauhinia is medium to large shrub or small tree which grows relatively fast and varies in height and spread according to climatic conditions, growing anything 3 to 8m in height with a spread of 2 to 4m. It is evergreen in temperate climates but can be deciduous in colder or drier regions.

It has many somewhat hairy, slender and arching branches that spread and droop outwards to create a lovely fountain shape, and the attractive light green, two-lobed leaves are a perfect foil for the masses of large bell-shaped, bright canary-yellow flowers with their black to deep maroon coloured throats. Their vivid colour only lasts for one day after which they turn a dusky, pinkish brown before being shed. In warmer climates, they are prolific flowerers, and often produce flowers freely and continuously throughout much of the year, however, their main flowering season is from mid- to late summer (December to March). The slender and velvety, pea like pods develop from January to June, or even later, starting out green and turning a pale golden brown with age, and remain on the tree for a long time.  

A variety of wildlife can be lured to the garden with this little tree and it entices a variety of birds to visit. The yellow bauhinia not only provides safe nesting sites, but also provides food for insectivorous, nectar and seed eating birds. The flowers are rich in pollen, attracting various insects such as moths, butterflies and bees, and in turn, the insects attract many insect eating birds – the symmetry of nature at its best! It is a host plant for many butterfly species, whose larvae feed on the leaves, and some Deudorix butterfly species lay their eggs inside the pods, and the larvae feed off the seeds. Louries love to eat the flowers, and although not frequently eaten by livestock, the leaves are often browsed by rhino and certain antelope.

Uses:

The leaves can be used as fodder for livestock, and the fresh, young leaves, which have an acid flavour, can be added to salads, or cooked and eaten as a vegetable with rice, or added to soups and other dishes as flavouring.

The wood is fine-grained, heavy, hard and strong, and the sapwood is pale pink while the heartwood is almost black. Although the wood is quite durable, hard and heavyweight, and takes a relatively good finish, it is used mainly to fashion small object, because the timber comes in small pieces and is often too small or warped for larger projects. Despite this fact, due to its durability, roof beams were traditionally constructed from the branches. The fibrous inner bark has been used to weave baskets, and a yellow dye can be extracted from the leaves.

In Africa and India many parts of this tree are used in traditional medicine. An astringent gargle for sore throats is made from the stems, infusions of the flowers and buds are said to provide relief from dysentery and diarrhoea, the fruits are believed to have diuretic properties, a paste made with the seeds, combined with other additives, is applied to animal bites, and the leaves are made into a plaster-like substance which is applied to abscesses.

Extracts of this plant have shown strong activity against Gram-positive bacteria and are said to help kill intestinal parasites. Gram-positive bacteria are bacteria that give a positive result in the Gram stain test, which is traditionally used to quickly classify bacteria into two broad categories according to their type of cell wall. Anthelmintics, also called “vermifuges” or “vermicides” are terms used to describe a group of drugs used to treat infections of animals with parasitic worms, including flat-worms - flukes (trematodes) and tapeworms (cestodes) as well as round worms (nematodes). Anthelmintics expel parasitic worms and other internal parasites from the body by either stunning or killing them and without causing significant damage to the host.

Decoctions of the roots and stem bark are also used to treat abdominal complaints and are applied topically to treat various skin disorders, abscesses and swollen glands.

Three other species of Bauhinia (Bauhinia galpinii, Bauhinia thonningii, Bauhinia petersiana) are also used medicinally for everything from coughs and pneumonia to convulsions, constipation, and even venereal diseases.

In the Garden:

The yellow bauhinia will add life and vibrancy to any landscape and is invaluable in all wildlife gardens, as well as for low-maintenance and eco gardens because it does not suffer from serious pests or diseases, reducing the need to spray in the garden. Because it is only semi drought hardy, include it in areas of the garden which will receive moderate watering during dry spells.

It makes a fine specimen or accent plant, and because it blooms for such a long time, is a splendid addition to the mixed shrub border. If trimmed regularly it is excellent for both informal and formal hedges, and a sturdy windbreak for coastal gardens.

The yellow bauhinia is a lovely addition to large rockeries and because of its small stature it is perfect for smaller gardens, and a good container plant for patios or balconies.

 A huge plus is that the yellow bauhinia does not have an aggressive or invasive root system, making it safe to plant in close proximity to permanent structures and paving, or next to swimming pools.

Cultivation/Propagation:

Established plants can tolerate a moderate amount of frost, but the seedlings and younger plants should be protected against frost and extreme fluctuations in temperature for at least the first 3 to 4 years of their lives.

It will tolerate light shade but prefers full sun, and although it can withstand the occasional dry spell, it does best when watered moderately throughout the year, and especially during long, hot and dry spells. In clay soils, water less frequently.

This tree will adapt to most garden soils which drain well, but for optimal health plant in a loose and well-drained, compost enriched loamy or peaty soil, with a slightly acidic pH. Impoverished soils will benefit greatly by being enriched with lots of compost, and in somewhat sandy and clayish, moisture retentive soils, feed with bone-meal or liquid fertilisers in spring. Mulching the soil regularly will help to conserve moisture and save on watering.   

The yellow bauhinia may lose some of its limbs in high wind, but like most legumes it recovers and quickly re-sprouts after such damage.  The central stems may die out after a few years, but these are easily pruned out to allow the new stems at the base to grow and mature. It responds very well to the occasional pruning and can be pruned back quite hard during the dormant winter months to encourage more profuse flowering next season.

It is mostly propagated from seed sown in spring or very early summer, and should start flowering in the second or third season of growth. Soak the seed in hot water overnight to help soften the hard-outer layer, which may inhibit germination. Sow into deep seedling trays filled with equal parts of fine, washed river sand and compost. Place the trays in a well ventilated, warm, brightly lit area and mist them often, but take care to not let the soil become too waterlogged. Germination will typically occur within 3 to 4 weeks, and the seedlings grow rapidly. Once they have developed their first set of proper leaves, they can be transplanted into their permanent homes.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

Bauhinia tomentosa does not suffer from serious pests or diseases, and if you do see the occasional grub or caterpillar, let it be - its most likely going to turn into a beautiful butterfly! Occasionally beetles can destroy the flowers but the plant will quickly recover.

Warning:

Although we did not find Bauhinia tomentosa on toxic lists for pets it is always advisable to prevent them from chewing on garden plants, and small children should always be supervised in the garden.