by William A. McNamara
It's rare in the wilds of China and it may be even rarer in cultivation. Yet this interesting tree continues to attract attention not necessarily because of its rarity, but because of a statement by the indefatigable plant hunter Ernest H. Wilson. Trained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Wilson first went to China in search of ornamental plants in 1899. He was sent by the Veitch & Sons firm, the Royal Exotic Nursery, to find the dove tree, Davidia involucrata Baill.and spent the better part of a decade introducing a wealth of plants new to cultivation from China into Europe and North America. His well-publicized efforts gained him the nickname of 'Chinese' Wilson.
First introduced by Wilson in 1907, Emmenopterys henryi Oliv. owes its fame to Wilson's description of it as, "one of the most strikingly beautiful trees of Chinese forests". Due to his stature in the world of horticulture, a comment like this drew a great deal of attention. But the excitement slowly drifted into frustration as the trees in cultivation refused to bloom. The first tree in Britain to flower was in 1987 at Wakehurst Place and was more than 75 years old; the first in Europe, also decades old, was at Villa Taranto, Pallanza, on Lake Maggiore in Italy in 1971. The tree at Wakehurst Place has not flowered since, nor have any others in Britain. The first to flower in North America was in the collection of Dr. Allen Hirsh of Silver Spring, Maryland in 1994 and originated from seed germinated at the Arnold Arboretum in 1979. Since then, a number of trees in the southeastern USA have begun blooming.
Remarkably, 2 trees only 6 years old are now blooming at Quarryhill. As far as we know, these are the first to flower in western North America and may be the youngest ever to flower in cultivation. Our trees came from seed collected during Quarryhill's expedition to eastern Sichuan in 1996 in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Howick Arboretum. They germinated the following year, one being planted in the ground in 1998 and the other in 2000. Showing extraordinary vigor and health, both have grown as shrubs, lacking a single leader and have reached 15 feet and 8 feet, respectively. The flower buds were first noticed in late June. They began opening in July and continued well into August
Emmenopterys henryi has a wide distribution in south central China, but is endangered due to agricultural expansion, logging and poor regeneration. It is a monotypic genus of the Rubiaceae and can grow to over 100 feet, though large specimens are extremely rare. Endemic to China, it is a deciduous tree with large dark green opposite leaves with red petioles. The clusters of fragrant creamy white 1-inch funnel-shaped flowers can be up to 10 inches across and are surrounded by large white 'bracts' similar to Schizophragma. According to the China Plant Red Data Book, it does not flower until 30 years of age and usually sets seed once every 2-4 years.
Fortunate to have seen Emmenopterys henryi in the wild and now to have it blooming in cultivation, would I concur with 'Chinese' Wilson? Perhaps, as it is indeed beautiful, but one thing is certain, I have a new favorite tree.