Plant This: Mexican orchid tree

Brightening the shade with floppy-petaled, gleaming white flowers, Mexican orchid tree (Bauhinia mexicana) is a gangly but pretty shrub for dappled shade or light morning sun here in central Texas. Cousin to the Hill Country-native, spring-blooming Anacacho orchid tree (Bauhinia lunarioides), Mexican orchid tree blooms spring through fall, with its most prolific flowering occurring in late summer.

Here’s how mine looked about a month ago, in full bloom. It stands 6 feet tall, which is about as tall as it gets in a climate with winter freezes.

The leaves are shaped like cloven hooves, and the flowers are reputed to attract butterflies, although I can’t recall seeing butterflies on mine. Hummingbirds definitely enjoy them though.

Considered hardy to zone 9 (not our 8b), Mexican orchid tree is susceptible to cold damage in Austin, so site it on the warmer side of the house or under an evergreen tree for some protection from hard freezes. Also, forgo a fall planting and aim for planting in late spring, so it’ll have time to get established before experiencing a freeze.

Companion plants might include inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’), and white-flowered Salvia coccinea.

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

14 Responses

  1. Alison says:

    This is such a cool tree. I wonder how it would do if I grew it in a pot and sheltered it in a heated greenhouse in winter?

    I imagine it would do well, Alison! The only thing I’m not sure about is how much heat it needs in summer to bloom. When we get cooler weather (nights in the 50s, days in the 70s), it stops blooming. Still, you might get some flowers, and the leaves are quite pretty. —Pam

  2. I have had this tree on my garden wish list for a while. It can be difficult to find in a garden center though. I didn’t realize that hummingbirds liked it. That is an added bonus!

    Yes, it can be hard to find. In Austin, I’d check with Barton Springs Nursery or Natural Gardener. Shop for it in the spring, or, if you buy one now, keep it in the pot until next spring and protect it from hard freezes this winter. —Pam

  3. Ally says:

    I’ve been growing this plant for about 10 years. When I first started growing it, I kept it in a large pot, which I moved into my greenhouse for the winter. One year I noticed that without any protection, seedlings of the mother plant sprouted up and grew. I left these volunteers to the elements and they thrived. Eventually the potted Mexican Orchid went into the ground and has done just fine. I’m still nervous about the zone 9 label, so I’ve been digging up volunteers as insurance against the day when we have a big freeze again. I haven’t done that this year. Do you supposed I’m tempting fate?

    Of course! Whenever you don’t take precautions, that’s when Mother Nature sends the deep freeze. ;-) I’m glad to know that yours came through the big freeze of a few years ago though. I can’t remember if I had mine before then or not. —Pam

  4. Bob Beyer says:

    I have a small 12″ size plant that I am nurturing along. High hopes for eventually putting it in the garden most likely as a container plant.

    I’d think you could plant it next spring, Bob, if you are so inclined. I don’t have much experience keeping shrubs and trees in pots, but I suppose if it’s a big-enough pot… —Pam

  5. Kris P says:

    I love it! I didn’t know that my Bauhinia x blakeana had such a pretty cousin. I haven’t seen this shrub here but will have to scout about.

    Yes, there are at least two American bauhinias: B. mexicana and B. lunarioides. I’m growing both of them. —Pam

  6. Abbey says:

    Thanks for adding the note about companion plants. It gives me a better idea of the conditions needed.

    You’re welcome, Abbey. I have a swath of inland sea oats under my Mexican orchid tree, and they look pretty together. —Pam

  7. I think your info and comments make the case for using plants closer to one’s ecoregion, at least in certain aspects of the weather and soils. This tree / plant is quite lush, moreso even than the Anacacho Orchid Tree.

    Yes, it’s definitely more leafy than the Anacacho. —Pam

  8. David says:

    Hi Pam,
    What a treat to ‘search’ the vast world wide web for a new plant and find you right there waiting. It’s a small world after all. I just bought one of these and had no idea what it was except for the common name. I love the shape of the leaves and the fact that it can grow as an understory treelet. This will add a new dimension to my shade garden. Does yours produce seed and little baby plants?
    I found them for sale( well, sort of for sale…I asked the guy to dig up a few baby plants that were under the mother…LOL) at Hill Country Nursery in New Braunfels.

    Hi, David. Yes, it has seeded a few baby trees into my garden, although never so many as to be a nuisance. Enjoy yours! —Pam

  9. hal walker says:

    I have a orchid tree that was severly damaged during a hard freeze spell (18 degrees). The tree looks dead. What should I do.


    • Pam/Digging says:

      I would wait until late spring to see if it releafs or returns from the roots, Hal. Just sit tight until at least mid-May before pruning it. —Pam

      • Scott says:

        I also have an Orchid Tree that was planted last fall. It kept it’s leaves until almost Febuary and now appears to be dead. There are a lot of limbs that are brittle and break off easily but there are a few that are more rubbery. I was worried that the tree might have died do to too much water over the last 5 months…we have got a lot of rain in Houston. Now there is no evidence of buds or life at all. Hopefully it will pick up now that the weather has warmed up.

  10. Sue Totte says:

    My landscaper added 3 to my front yard, all facing south just in front of our house where they get part sun. They were placed in mid-April & 2 have since sprouted but are under a foot tall. Only 1 has not done so; the one with slightly more open shade. I figured that the stock may have been compromised by the freeze early this year at the nursery, and am trying to decide whether or not this 3rd plant will come up. It feels like it has rooted, but the old wooded stump has no sign of life even thru July. Shall I replace it?

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Scratch the wood with your fingernail. If you don’t see any green under the bark, it’s a goner. It definitely should have leafed out by mid-summer in any event, so I would replace it. Better to plant a new one in spring than in fall, however, to give it time to establish before winter. —Pam