Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
from the February 13, 2011 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO
Above you see an easy-to-recognize shrub or small tree that appears commonly along forest trails and woods edges, even sometimes in very disturbed habitats, almost like a weed. It's distributed all through tropical lowland Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America to Costa Rica, so if you travel in this region here's a good species to recognize. Notice the leaves' distinctive shape, like the hoof of a cow. In Spanish the bush is called Pata de Vaca, or Cow's Hoof. It's BAUHINIA DIVARICATA, and some of its flowers are shown close-up below:
In tropical America whenever you see a shrub or tree with cow-hoof-shaped leaves, it's usually the genus Bauhinia of the Bean Family. Most Bean Family species have compound leaves, so such "simple" leaves are a little unusual for that family, and to have that shallow indentation at the tip of the leaf is really distinctive. Also one somewhat odd feature of this species is that each flower bears just a single fertile stamen, though other much reduced, sterile ones manifest themselves as a kind of showy fringe in the flower's center. In the picture, the very long, upward curving items with green bulges in their centers are pistils, the green part being the ovary and future legume, the slender white part being the style, and the green, round tip the stigma. New flowers are white but as they age they develop a pinkish tinge.
We've encountered other Bauhinia species before. You might enjoy seeing how the same basic structure expresses itself so differently in other species -- see "variations on the Bauhinia theme." Check out the Purple Orchid Tree we saw back in Querétaro at http://www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/bauhin-1.htm.
Also there was one in Chiapas we couldn't name, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/cowfoot.htm.
An infusion of this Bauhinia's flowers sometimes is made into a remedy for bronchitis.