Emmenopterys henryi, a deciduous tree planted in 1928 at Borde Hill in Haywards Heath, is about to burst into a mass of bloom thanks to an exceptionally cold winter followed by one of the hottest summers on record.
Described by the great Edwardian plant hunter EH Wilson as "one of the most strikingly beautiful trees of Chinese forests", the Emmenopterys, native to central and south-western China, was introduced to the UK in 1907. It is notoriously shy to flower in the West.
Borde Hill’s largest specimen celebrates its 90th birthday this year and was grown from seed collected by eminent plant hunter George Forrest on an expedition in southern China. The seed was sent home to his sponsor Col Stephenson R Clarke of Borde Hill who duly planted it in his Azalea Ring.
The Colonel’s beloved tree is currently a mass of buds and about to burst into bloom for just the fourth time in its lifetime. Close by is a smaller Emmenopterys, a specimen from Kew Gardens, collected by EH Wilson at the turn of the 20th century. This tree, now 40 years old, has flowered twice before and is currently covered in buds too.
Andrew John Stephenson Clarke, great grandson to the Colonel, says: “My grandfather planted the [original, now 90-year old] specimen but never saw it flower in his lifetime, neither did his son or grandson; we had to wait four generations before it first flowered in 2011."
George Forrest was a plant hunter and explorer who undertook seven major expeditions. Forrest’s travels were adventurous in the extreme - he suffered through the jungles and was subjected to swarms of insects, survived exposure to poisonous plants, avoided sheer cliffs and deep gorges, escaped warring tribes and malaria, which killed one of his travelling companions. He was responsible for introducing hundreds of species to Western cultivation.
Forrest's prize Emmenopterys tree is strikingly beautiful, with reddish-purple young shoots and red leaves in spring, which mature to a glossy green, producing a shock of small creamy-white flowers.
Andy Stevens, head gardener at Borde Hill, says: “The cold winter, followed by our extended hot summer may have helped to produce this bumper collection of buds this year. We had a small showing of flowers in 2011 and 2016 but nothing like the number of buds we have this year. We hope that the blooms will bring in tree fans from far and wide!”
The blooms are expected to come out in the second week of August, but check www.bordehill.co.uk for updates.
The Gloucestershire RHS Partner Garden is also expecting its own specimen of Emmenopterys henryi to bloom for the very first time.
Batsford Head Gardener, Matthew Hall said: “We always knew the historical and botanical importance of this tree, so I’ve been keeping a close eye on it, knowing that one year the beautiful flowers will eventually make appearance. For me, it’s even more fitting that one of Wilson’s greatest introductions is flowering not far from where he was born, in nearby Chipping Campden. We may not witness flowers again for another 20 years or so, so we’re going to enjoy this unique opportunity!”
Fancy growing it for yourself? Find suppliers of Emmenopterys henryi