Novelties for each generation
THE plants we enjoy in our gardens today are very different from those that our parents and grandparents grew 50 years ago. It’s not just that fashions change and new garden cultivars are introduced; there are also new plants that have only recently been found in the wild, but quickly become widespread in cultivation. Think of Corydalis flexuosa, Buddleja loricata and those brilliant Mexican salvias that we take for granted. All were introduced within the past 30 years and all are now widely available, because they are beautiful, easy to cultivate and play a useful role in the garden.
Why were they not known until so recently? Because many more corners of the world are open and accessible than before. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was those countries in the Middle East from eastern Turkey to northern Pakistan, now so difficult of access, that gave us a constant stream of new bulbs, alpines and prairie plants. Today’s introductions come from countries that may have been explored by botanists in the past, but never so easily and comprehensively as is possible now: Chile and Peru, Burma and Tibet, Botswana, Namibia and many others.
New species are discovered all the time, even in countries that have been thoroughly botanised in the past, but the most rewarding of all has proved to be China. Its variations of altitude, climate and geology have given this great empire one of the richest of national floras. Heptacodium miconioides,
I spent half a day in May chugging round the botanic garden in Beijing in an electric buggy, gawping at all the Chinese trees and shrubs that hitherto I had known only by name. Here were clumps of Aesculus chinensis, a form of Syringa pekinensis with bright-yellow flowers and a whole valley planted with metasequoias into which cold mist was directed through narrow ducts underneath the raised walkway.
However, I believe the most impressive plant to come out of China recently is Heptacodium miconioides. It appears to have every virtue and no faults, being hardy everywhere in the UK, unfussy as to soils, tolerant of shade and fast growing. It flowers for up to eight weeks from the end of August onwards—a time of the year when we scratch our heads for trees and shrubs that will flower at all. Butterflies, bees and other insects cluster on its flowers as much as on buddlejas, except that heptacodiums are bigger and always surrounded by a flurry of butterfly wings and a humming of honey bees and bumblebees.
The creamy-white, deliciously scented flowers are small, but borne so profusely that the whole plant is covered with them. After the flowers drop, their calyxes turn pink, then crimson. The paired leaves have a curious (and very attractive) habit of folding up along their midribs and curving like scimitars. They’re among the first to emerge in spring and last to fall in autumn.
The shrub is tall, often achieving 20ft, but specimens have been known to reach more than 30ft. Older plants have attractive peeling bark. It’s fairly easy to propagate from hardwood cuttings in autumn, but nurserymen have much success with softwood cuttings put under mist in May. Some grow it as a single-stemmed standard and call it a tree, but you can also train gooseberries as standards and would never call them trees.
Heptacodium miconioides was first discovered by the plant hunter E. H. Wilson in 1907 in the Chinese province of Hubei. He collected herbarium specimens, but didn’t bring back seeds. Westerners didn’t see it again until a party of American botanists visited the Hangzhou (formerly Hangchow) Botanical Garden in 1980. They asked if they might have seed, which the Chinese kindly gave them, and the resulting plants were grown at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.
Five years later, it occurred to the botanists that heptacodiums might make rather good garden plants and they sent seeds to nurseries and botanic gardens in Europe, including Kew and Edinburgh. That’s how it came to be in our gardens. It made its debut in the 1991–92 edition of The RHS Plant Finder and is now so commonly seen that it’s marked as ‘widely available’. Many readers will already know it and grow it. To those who don’t, I say ‘get it quick’.
‘To those who don’t already know it, I say “Get it quick”
Discovered in 1907, also known as the Seven Sons plant, only became widely available from the 1980s