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Xanthoceras sorbifolium (yellowhorn)

Yellowhorn is a very attractive bush, or small tree, bearing sprays of elegant white flowers on bare branches in May or June.

Flowers of yellowhorn

Xanthoceras sorbifolium (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Xanthoceras sorbifolium Bunge

Common name: 

yellowhorn

Conservation status: 

Not evaluated according to IUCN Red List criteria.

Habitat: 

Rocky slopes on hills and mountains.

Key Uses: 

Ornamental, edible seeds.

Known hazards: 

None known.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Rosanae
Order: 
Sapindales
Family: 
Sapindaceae
Genus: Xanthoceras

About this species

Xanthoceras sorbifolium was described by Joseph Hooker (Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1865–1885) in 1887 as ‘…one of the most attractive and interesting hardy garden shrubs that has been introduced for many years’. It was originally collected by Alexander von Bunge (1803–1890), a botanist working near Beijing, in about 1830, whilst accompanying an overland mission to the capital from St Petersburg. It was not brought into cultivation in Europe until 1868, when the botanist and missionary Père David (1826–1900) sent seeds and live plants to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. David reported that although he had only seen wild plants in a small and mountainous area of China, the tree was well-known in Beijing and much cultivated by the Chinese, who ate the seeds.

Synonym: 

Xanthoceras sorbifolia

Genus: 
Xanthoceras

Discover more

Geography and distribution

Native to north and north-east China (where it is found in Gansu, Hebei, Henan, Nei Mongol, Ningxia, Shaanxi, Shandong and Shanxi provinces) and Korea.

Description

A deciduous, leafy bush or small tree growing up to 5 m tall and bearing reddish-brown branches. The leaves are glossy dark green on the upper side and paler below. The leaves are up to 30 cm long, held on a short petiole (leaf-stalk), borne alternately on the stem and are pinnate (divided into leaflets). The leaflets are narrow, 4–5 cm long and have serrated margins. The flowers appear in May or June (before the leaves) in sprays up to 25 cm long. Individual flowers are white, with streaks of greenish-yellow, turning to red at the base. The fruit is a round or pear-shaped capsule up to 6 cm long, revealing a spongy, white inner surface when it splits into three sections to release the seeds, which are round, purplish-brown and edible.

Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Hand-coloured lithograph of Xanthoceras sorbifolium after a painting by Matilda Smith (1887), taken from Curtis's Botanical Magazine.

Curtis's Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.

Now well over 200 years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.

Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Find out more about Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Uses

The edible fruits and seeds of yellowhorn are eaten in China. Xanthoceras sorbifolium is cultivated as an ornamental.

Cultivation

Yellowhorn can be grown in most soil types. It is still quite unusual in British gardens, despite the fact that it is elegant, free-flowering and hardy.

This species at Kew

A fine specimen of Xanthoceras sorbifolium can be seen on the lawn outside the Princess of Wales Conservatory where it has grown into a small, spreading tree.

Pressed and dried specimens of Xanthoceras sorbifolium, including one collected by Alexander von Bunge, are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers from around the world, by appointment. The details, including images, of some of these specimens can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.

View details and images of specimens

A specimen of wood from X. sorbifolium is held in the behind-the-scenes Economic Botany Collection.

References and credits

Franchet, A.R. (1884). Plantae davidianae ex Sinarum imperio. Paris.

Hooker, J.D. (1887). Xanthoceras sorbifolia. Curtis’s Bot. Mag. 113: tab. 6923.

Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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