Heatwave brings on the blooms of a rare tree that has only previously flowered three times in its 90-year lifetime
Emmenopterys henryi, a deciduous tree that’s native to central and south-western China, planted in 1928 at Borde Hill in Haywards Heath, has burst into a mass of bloom thanks to an exceptionally cold winter followed by one of the hottest summers on record.
Described by the great Edwardian plant hunter EH Wilson as “one of the most strikingly beautiful trees of Chinese forests”, the Emmenopterys was introduced to the UK in 1907. It is notoriously shy to flower in the West and has only flowered four times in the country on record to date.
Borde Hill’s largest specimen celebrates its 90th birthday this year and was grown from seed collected by eminent plant hunter George Forrest on an expedition in Southern China. The seed was sent home to his sponsor Col Stephenson R Clarke of Borde Hill who duly planted it in his Azalea Ring.
The Colonel’s beloved tree is currently a mass of buds and has burst into bloom for the fourth time in its lifetime. Close by the 90-year-old tree is a smaller Emmenopterys that was micropropagated by Kew Gardens, from one collected by EH Wilson at the turn of the 20th century. This tree, now 40 years old, has flowered twice before and is currently in flower as well.
Andrewjohn Stephenson Clarke, great grandson to the Colonel, says: “We are incredibly lucky to have both the Wilson and Forrest Emmenopterys about to bloom. My grandfather planted the 90-year-old specimen but never saw it flower in his lifetime, neither did his son or grandson, we had to wait four generations before it first flowered in 2011. The Colonel would have been fascinated by the weather conditions we have experienced in southern England this year and its effect on our plant collection. He kept detailed notes of every seed and tree planted on the estate, and his correspondence with both Wilson and Forrest makes for fascinating reading. If he were here today he would be thrilled to see Forrest’s Emmenopterys henryi in flower alongside the younger specimen in the 125th anniversary year of his garden.”
George Forrest was a plant hunter and explorer who undertook seven major expeditions. Forrest’s travels were adventurous in the extreme – he suffered through the jungles and was subjected to swarms of insects, survived exposure to poisonous plants, avoided sheer cliffs and deep gorges, escaped warring tribes and malaria, which killed one of his travelling companions. He was responsible for introducing hundreds of species into Western cultivation, including the Emmenopterys henryi.
Andy Stevens, head gardener at Borde Hill, says: “The cold winter, followed by our extended hot summer, may have helped to produce this bumper collection of flowers this year. We had a small showing of flowers in 2011, 2012 and 2016 but nothing like the number of flowers we have this year. We hope that they will bring in tree fans from far and wide!”