14 August 2018

Shy tree blooms for the first time in 31 years

A rare Chinese tree fully bloom in West Sussex after an incredible 31-year wait.

Emmenopterys henryi

'Like waiting for a baby to be born'

We take it for granted that most trees and plants flower every year, but how about one that has taken an incredible 31 years to show us a full set of its magical blooms - that really is taking shyness to a whole new level.

But this is exactly what has made the unfurling of the Emmenopterys henryi tree’s delicate white flowers extra special to both staff and visitors at Wakehurst. 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.”

'Strikingly beautiful'

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.

Emmenopterys henry
Emmenopterys henry

Read & watch