Trees of the Month: Marina Strawberry & Hong Kong Orchid

Trees of the Month: Marina Strawberry & Hong Kong Orchid title=
Trees of the Month: Marina Strawberry & Hong Kong Orchid
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By David Gress

Hong Kong Orchid Tree - Tree-of-the-Month:  February 2018

When people experience a Hong Kong Orchid Tree up close for the first time, they find it hard to believe that any tree could be covered with so many orchid-like flowers that fill the air around them with such a wonder fragrance.  The vibrantly magenta colored blooms, up to 6 inches across, are usually seen from November through May, but can occur sporadically throughout the year. 

These beautiful flowers are sterile - they will not develop seed pods.  Consequently, all Hong Kong Orchid Trees in cultivation are believed to have been developed from just one, that was found in China!  Each of its progeny has been created by careful horticultural techniques - grafting, cuttings, or air layering.

These lovely trees have quite distinctive, light-green, double-lobed leaves, which look remarkably like the wings of resting butterflies!  Being semi-deciduous, many of these leaves will drop after the blooms fade - so, don’t worry if your tree looks a bit puny at times - it will soon be fully leafed out again.   

Interestingly, Hong Kong Orchid Trees are not related to orchids; they are actually legumes – and are related to common peas and beans.  Being small- to medium-sized trees, they can grow to a maximum of 20 feet (with an equal spread), but are usually smaller.  Careful pruning will create and maintain a full and symmetrical canopy.  

The botanical name of the Hong Kong Orchid Tree is Bauhinia ‘blakeana’. The genus name, Bauhinia, honors two 16th century Swiss scientists, Johann and Gaspar Bauhin; the specific epithet name, blakeana, honors Sir Henry Blake, the Governor of Hong Kong from 1898 to 1903. 

In Santa Barbara, three species of Bauhinia have been planted and appreciated for years: the Hong Kong Orchid Tree (Bauhinia blakeana); the Lavender Orchid Tree (Bauhinia variegata); and, the Brazilian Orchid Tree (Bauhinia forficata).  Each are from foreign climes: Hong Kong Orchid Trees are native to China; Lavender Orchid Trees are native to Southeast Asia; and Brazilian Orchid Trees are native to Brazil, Argentina and Peru.  However, all Bauhinia do well in our Mediterranean climate, being fairly drought tolerant after they are established.  Of course, they will benefit from regular irrigation. They do best in full sun and need to be protected from frost.  Our local butterflies and bees love these trees.

Hong Kong Orchid Trees, together with Lavender Orchid Trees, are street trees in the 700 and 800 blocks of Olive Street, the 100 and 200 blocks of West Islay Street, and the 400 block of East De La Guerra Street.  Hong Kong Orchid Trees are also street trees in the 800 block of Spring Street and the100 and 200 blocks of East Padre Street.  Notable specimens are in the 1500 block of Alameda Padre Serra, at the southeast corner of the County Courthouse, and at the southwest corner of De La Guerra and Olive Streets.  Brazilian Orchid Trees are street trees in the 600 and 700 blocks of State Street; they will have white flowers in late summer.

All three species have been planted in Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden.  Enjoy them all in one place!


Marina Strawberry Tree - Tree-of-The-Month, January 2018 

The Marina Strawberry Tree, Arbutus ‘Marina’, is January’s Tree-of-the-Month, although it is truly a tree for all seasons in Santa Barbara. Attractive year-round and easy to maintain, it has become a favorite tree selection for our home gardens, parks, and commercial landscapes.  This tree’s popularity is certainly well deserved, as it bears evergreen leaves, lovely flower pendants, attractive fruit, and sculptural trunks and limbs.

It was a relatively new (1984) introduction to nurseries and landscaping.  All those available today come from a line which originally appeared in a 1917 horticultural exposition and was thereafter maintained in a now closed nursery in the Marina district of San Francisco (hence the name ‘Marina’).  It appears to be a hybrid of the standard Arbutus species (Arbutus unedo, cultivated for centuries in the Mediterranean and Europe) combined with another Arbutus species.  It has similarities to our native Madrone tree (Arbutus menziesii); however, the ‘Marina’ variety is much more adaptable to various growing conditions and easier to grow in cultivation.

It has a dense, rounded canopy, with 4 to 5-inch long leaves that are a shiny dark-green above and pale beneath.  Pendants of bell-shaped flowers, pink to red, can bloom all year long, but are most abundant in fall and winter.  The fruit is a round berry, ¾ inch across, with a bumpy skin that starts yellow and turns strawberry-red when ripe, resulting in the common name of Strawberry Tree.  While the fruit is edible, it tastes more like a gritty kiwi than a strawberry! 

Fruits mature in the fall, so fruits and flowers can be seen on the tree simultaneously, adding to its ornamental interest.  The fruits attract seed-eating birds, while the nectar- and pollen- bearing flowers attract bees and humming birds.  Over time, the light-gray outer bark shreds away in thin strips, to reveal the reddish to cinnamon-brown inner bark - perhaps this tree’s most remarkable feature.

Unlike the standard Strawberry Tree that grows to 20 feet tall, Arbutus ‘Marina’ can grow to a height and spread of over 40 feet.  Fortunately, it is relatively slow growing; with minimum pruning and maintenance, it can fit into just about any sized garden.  This lovely hybrid is surprisingly tough and can tolerate drought and most soil conditions, though overwatering and poor drainage can cause root and foliage diseases.

The Marina Strawberry Tree can be used as a multi-trunked tree, to make a broad-spreading feature in the garden, or as a single-trunked tree, for smaller more confined spaces.  In all forms, this fine tree adds amazing beauty to any garden, all year long!

Street trees can be seen in the 1500 and 1600 blocks of Mountain Avenue and the 1900 block of Bath Street.  Private garden trees are found at Sola Street at Mountain Avenue and at Micheltorena Street at Chino Street.  There are two mature trees in East Alameda Park by Kids’ World. 


Tree-of-the-Month articles are sponsored by Santa Barbara Beautiful, whose many missions include the increase of public awareness and appreciation of Santa Barbara’s many outstanding trees and, in a long-time partnership with the City Parks & Recreation Department, the funding and planting of trees along the City’s streets – a project which has resulted in the planting, to date, of more than 12,000 street trees.

[Editor's Note: The January Tree of the Month article was intended to appear last month but was postponed due to the mudslide in Montecito.]

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