The Chinese Connection
from March 2001

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For several centuries China has been a Mother Lode of ornamental plants. It is a vast country, with incredibly varied terrain (including, in the southwest, ranges of high, cold peaks separated by tropical valleys) and climates which vary from monsoonal deluge to desert. Over millions of years, an equally vast array of plant species evolved to fill the many niches available, and among these are many fine ornamentals. Serious plant importations from China to the western world began long ago, reaching a crescendo in the late 1800s and early 1900s, then falling off dramatically with the world wars and the Cold War which followed..

Fortunately, at least an intermittent stream of promising plants has begun trickling out of China and into West Coast horticulture over the last decade, thanks to some dedicated work on both sides of the Pacific. On the West Coast, the charge has been led by Pierre Piroche of Piroche Plants, Inc, in British Columbia and the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden. A few energetic individuals, like Roger Warner in California and Sean Hogan and Parker Sanderson in Oregon, have done an amazing job of exploiting the limited channels which exist for importation of seeds, and of getting the resulting plants into landscape settings for observation. For our part, we at Suncrest feel privileged to promote the work of these individuals and channel the fruits of their efforts to the gardening public. I would like to describe some unusual and promising members of the magnolia family. Later, we'll examine some other interesting plants from the "Chinese connection.">/P

Manglietia insignis. Red lotus tree. This is a robust tree potentially as much as100' high, though easily controllable at a much lesser height. It is upright-oval in form and has attractive grey-brown bark The leaves are up to 10" long, narrowly pointed-oval in shape. They droop gracefully along the stems. Their color is deep green above, pale and bluer beneath. Cupped magnolia-like flowers are carried at the shoot tips in early summer. Each has several narrow segments up to 3" long, cream or pink-tinged within, pale pink to red without. Spikes of purplish red fruits later decorate the plant. It is hardy to 15 degrees or less.

Michelia maudiae. This is simply one of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen. It grows perhaps 20-30' high in cultivation, varying in form from bushy and upright-oval to more spreading and open. The leaves are broadly oval, up to 6" long and beautifully colored-usually dark bluish green above and a striking chalky blue beneath. The flowers are quite variable in size, but in the better forms (which, naturally, we are reselecting from seedling batches as they bloom), they are up to 6" broad (8" in one case here) and breathtaking in their beauty. The wide, tapered petals are snow-white, sometimes with pink shading at the base. As if this were not enough, the flowers can be deliciously fragrant of wintergreen and other fruits and spices. This species thrives in full sun near the coast but should have afternoon shading in the interior. It is hardy to 20 degrees F. or less, possibly much less.

Michelia platypetala. This is a more robust tree than the last though similar in overall appearance. It grows 40' or more high as a forest tree, probably less here, with upright-oval form and attractive reddish brown bark. The leaves are fairly broad, 4-6" long, and quite smooth and dark, with a polished surface. The wide petalled flowers are up to 4" across. They are pure white with red centers and sweetly and spicily scented. This species is best in a lightly shaded, wind-protected site. It should be hardy to 15 degrees F. or less.

Michelia wilsonii (sinensis). This is another vigorous tree, growing up to 60' high. It has smooth light green to grey-green bark and narrowly pointed-oval leaves up to 6" long. These are glossy and dark green above, paler beneath. The flowers have up to a dozen flared 2" segments clear to pale yellow in color rather than white. We are hoping for our first flowering this spring. This species is easily grown, though of uncertain hardiness. I would assume about 20 degrees F. for the time being.

Michelia yunnanensis. A few years ago I was pleased to receive a batch of seedlings of this michelia from Roger Warner. However, I was not quite prepared for the results. This is an extremely variable large shrub or small tree, with habit ranging from strongly upright through dome-shaped to prostrate, even in this one seedling batch. The leaves are like a broader, thicker and darker variant of those of the banana shrub, M. figo, and almost equally glossy. The flowers, however, are quite distinct. They are broadly cupped to wide-open and range from a little over an inch to three inches broad, with a variable number of segments. Color ranges from cream to snow-white. Their sweet fragrance is also distinct, perhaps more like gardenias than the lemon-and-banana mix of M. figo. They are also borne at every node along the younger stems. The main show arrives in mid-spring, and a scattering persists over much of the season. I have already made selections from the initial batch, including one with wonderful broad-petalled 3" blossoms. These plants are clearly hardier than currently cultivated forms of M. figo, and not prone to sudden defoliation after the first blast of winter.

Parakmeria lotungensis. Eastern joy lotus tree. Yet another unusual magnolia ally, this is a straight, erect evergreen tree, growing as much as 100' high in nature but easily pruned to a more manageable size. It forms a bushy, narrow crown above, with smooth pale grey bark below. The leaves are up to 5" long, dark green and glossy. They often have beautiful grey- or blue-green undersurfaces. The flowers open at the shoot tips in spring. They are strongly cupped, with broad cream-colored petals, and resemble those of the giant lotus (Nelumbo). It thrives in a sunny but wind-protected site.