The delicate white flowers of the Emmenopteris henryi tree have just started unfurling at Wakehurst, part of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in Ardingly, West Sussex. It was back in 1987 that a full flowering was recorded.
Andrew Mash, gardens supervisor, said that the 100-year-old tree had a handful of flowers near the top 10 years ago, but this is the first time all the blossoms are blooming at the same time.
Andy said: “We have had a very cold February and March followed by soaring temperatures throughout May and June and these are the most favourable conditions to bring out the flowers. It is mimicking the weather it would have in parts of its native China. We have no idea how long the blooms will last – we are hoping at least a week.”
He added: “It’s caused great excitement, it’s been like waiting for a baby to be born. Each day we have been checking the tree to see if there are any changes. The buds have been tightly closed for weeks and we did start to wonder whether it was ever going to happen.”
The tree, which is rare in cultivation, was introduced to the UK by renowned plant hunter Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson and he described it as ‘one of the most strikingly beautiful trees of the Chinese forests’.
The spectacular flowers arise in clusters, each one star-shaped, fragrant and surrounded by large, white elliptic bracts that flutter in the slightest breeze. The flowers seem to be breaking from the top of the tree and working their way down the domed canopy.
Emmenopterys henryi belongs to the coffee family, Rubiaceae. The Rubiaceae is a large family which is more diverse in warmer climates than in our own temperate conditions. Aside from the nation’s second favourite drink, coffee, the best-known members of the family are the herbaceous bedstraws (Galium spp.) including the scourge of many gardens, Galium aparine, commonly known as cleavers or goose grass.
Ernest Wilson named the Emmenopterys henryi in honour of the Irish plant hunter, Augustine Henry, who first found the tree in central China in 1887.
Before the flower at Wakehurst this month, there were only five recordings of it flowering in the UK; Cambridge Botanic Garden, Wakehurst (2008 – only a handful of flowers) and Borde Hill.
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Wakehurst, Kew’s Wild Botanic Garden in the Sussex High Weald, is one of the most beautiful and significant botanic gardens in the country. It is home to Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, which houses and protects seed from the world’s most substantial and diverse collection of threatened and useful wild plants, and leads the MSB Partnership, a crucially important global science-based conservation programme which is the largest of its kind in the world. The estate includes a contemporary botanic garden, where ornamental plantings and exotic tree and shrub collections of international importance sit within native woodland. Wakehurst’s natural assets associated with its countryside location renders it complementary to Kew’s West London site, with different growing conditions, and a real emphasis on wild plant collections. Coupled with the Millennium Seed Bank, Wakehurst offers an inspiring, immersive, and educational day out for the whole family, and serves as a vital contribution to UK and global plant conservation.
Please note that Wakehurst is referred to just as Wakehurst, not Wakehurst Place. It is not a National Trust property.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding collections as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international and a top London visitor attraction. Kew’s 132 hectares of landscaped gardens, and Wakehurst, Kew’s Wild Botanic Garden, attract over 2.1 million visits every year. Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009. Wakehurst is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. Kew receives just under half of its funding from Government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and research councils. Further funding needed to support Kew’s vital work comes from donors, membership and commercial activity including ticket sales.