The spectacular Natal bauhinia grows quickly and has a long flowering period

Rate this item
(1 Vote)

Bauhinia natalensis. Picture courtesy Bárbol see flickr pageBauhinia natalensis. Picture courtesy Bárbol see flickr pageThe Natal bauhinia (Bauhinia natalensis) is low maintenance, water-wise, and a lovely ornamental for even the smallest of gardens, with its attractive foliage and gorgeous white flowers. Find out everything you need to know about growing it 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.

Bauhinia natalensis is a small to medium sized shrub, and the daintiest of the South African bauhinia species with its small yet distinctive butterfly-shaped leaves. In summer it produces large, lightly scented white flowers, with some of the petals adorned with delicate maroon-red or deep pink stripes, which are said to be directional guides to night-flying insects like moths.

Flowering occurs for a long period in summer and flowering times may vary according to region. The trees can erupt into bloom on a regular basis, normally shortly after rain, but the main flowering time is from November to April and is so profuse that almost the entire bush is covered with blooms. Small golden brown fruit pods with pointed tips follow the flowers, ripening from January to June before splitting open and scattering the tiny brown seeds.

This plant grows relatively fast, and can be grow as a shrub or small tree. It typically grows to 1.5 to 2m tall, but can reach 2.5m tall with a 3m spread at maturity. Regular clipping will keep it smaller.

Although easy to grow and well suited to cultivation, it is rare in the wild, and its distribution is confined to the Eastern Cape and the southern KwaZulu-Natal coastal strip, where it can be found growing in valley bushveld and scrub, to an altitude of 1 250m. The Afrikaans common name “beesklou” (cattle foot) refers to the resemblance of the leaf to the footprint of cloven-hoofed animals.

White-bellied and other sunbirds visit the flowers, and it is a host plant for the Bushveld and Giant Emperor butterfly’s larva where they occur, and it may also be host to some moth larvae.

In the Garden:

The Natal bauhinia is suitable for gardens large and small because it does not have an aggressive root system and it can easily be pruned to keep it smaller. It also does well in containers, and is sought after by bonsai growers, so even if you only have a small balcony garden you can grow one.

It makes a statement when grown as a solitary specimen, but looks especially lovely when grown in groups of three of five. It is also a wonderful filler plant for the mixed shrub border, a great choice to plant against fences and walls, and is very effective near to water features and ponds. Because of its multi-stemmed growth habit it can make a pretty informal or formal hedge if it is clipped into shape regularly.

Cultivation:

The Natal bauhinia is a fast growing, multi-stemmed evergreen which starts flowering when young, and will reach maturity within a few years. It thrives in hot and humid, frost-free regions and is fairly sensitive to frost when young, but once established will tolerate light winter frost. In colder regions it will lose all its leaves in winter, re-sprouting again when conditions improve. In these regions plant in a sheltered north facing spot and cover young plants with a frost cover. Although the Natal bauhinia experiences dry winters in its natural habitat it is not adversely affected by heavy winter rainfall, making it perfect for the winter rainfall regions as long as the soil drains well and it is watered moderately in summer.

Although the plant will grow in sun or semi-shade, plants grown in full sun flower better and have a more compact, rounded form than those grown in shade. The Natal bauhinia grows on poor soils, but will adapt to most garden soils which drain well, thriving in fertile, well-composted soils. In poor soils feed regularly with a general purpose fertiliser in summer and apply an annual top dressing of compost and mulch in spring.

Young plants need heavy drenching until they are well established, but once established only a moderate amount of water throughout the year is required, and over watering will actually reduce the flower crop. Because this plant will tolerate almost any given rainfall, it is considered to be quite drought hardy and a great 'water-wise' plant for the garden.

The Natal bauhinia is naturally neat and does not require pruning, although a light trim occasionally will keep it in perfect shape.

Propagation:

The Natal bauhinia may seed itself freely in the garden, and the small seedlings can be dug up and transplanted into individual pots to grow on as soon as the first pair of true leaves appears.

Fresh seeds sown in spring germinate easily within two weeks, and soaking the seeds in warm water overnight will speed up the germination process. To prevent pre and post-emergence damping off, the seed should be treated with a fungicide prior to sowing, or watered with a fungicide immediately after sowing. Sow 1 to 2mm deep in sandy, well-drained seedling soil. The seedlings should be potted up into individual bags or pots as soon as the first pair of true leaves appears.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

The Natal bauhinia does not suffer from any serious pests or diseases, making it ideal for gardeners who do not want to use sprays in the garden.

Warning:

This plant is not listed as poisonous but it is always advisable to supervise small children in the garden and to discourage pets from chewing on plants.