Our very own socalwood immediately picked off my first mystery tree. It would seem indeed to be a Bauhinia variegata, known commonly as the orchid tree. I took a look through the world of the Bauhinia, and for a time almost thought it was Bauhinia purpurea, The Free Dictionary’s other possibility (entry 1). Apparently I’m not alone in this confusion, but shots of B. purpurea, like the one in the Wikipedia article seem quite different. Another name that occasionally popped up was Bauhinia candida, but it turns out that’s incorrect usage. Candida is simply a cultivar of B. variegata.
Yesterday morning, up early, I went out to have another look at the trees. The flowers are blooming on several right now – as they are supposed to between January and April (it’s March) – and they match up 1 for 1 to photos of the flowers of B. variegata, which are quite a bit different from those of the other Bauhinia species that I managed to track down of the >200 of them that Wikipedia claims exist. Socalwood scores a solid win.
There are a few examples along the street where I took my photos that appeared dead, filled with what I believed to be brown, withered leaves hanging onto the middle of the tree. These turned out – after research, and closer inspection of my own photos – to be the long, brown seed pods that form at the base of the long leaves, revealed as the drapery of the leaflets fall away from the leaves, from the bottom up. In this shot, you can see how long the leaves can grow. The squiggly lines that shoot from the seed pods into the sky are each one alternate compound leaf, as long as 3’, with most of the leaflets fallen away. The youngest parts of the leaves – the leaflets at the top – are still clinging on:
And now the important bit… can we build anything out of it? :)
I’ve scoured the internet for any mention of orchid tree turnings, carvings, whittlings, furniture, and other usage, and simply can’t find anything. Despite that the University of Florida's page on it states “the weak wood… is susceptible to breakage in storms,” online dictionaries like to say it has hard dark wood, sometimes calling it “mountain ebony.” This page on Mountain Ebony shows several of the colors and varieties of Bauhinia, and claims “The wood of the tree is of very good quality and reddish-brown in colour and is very strong. This is probably the reason behind the name ‘Mountain Ebony.’ This wood is used only for agricultural purposes and as firewood.”
The section on ebony from Turning and Mechanical Manipulation, by Charles Holtzapffel makes this claim: “Mountain Ebony. The different species of Bauhiniae are so called: B. porrerta grows on the hills in Jamaica, and has wood which is hard and veined with black.” Perhaps there’s some discrepancy with the local instances of the orchid tree, and those that grow in India and other more tropical/sub-tropical regions.
Maybe I’ll have to spirit away one of the local trees and find out how well it works myself ;) Meanwhile, at least they attract hummingbirds.
-- Gary, Los Angeles, video game animator