Nov­el­ties for each gen­er­a­tion

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

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

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