Tree or shrub? Heptacodium excels at both...

August 24, 2012 Panayoti Kelaidis , Senior Curator & Director of Outreach

No, Virginia! Those are not flowers,but the seedheads on one of the most remarkable and beautiful shrubs (or is it a tree?) from China. Heptacodium miconioides was discovered by E.H. Wilson in Hubei province in China in 1907, but only introduced to cultivation in 1980 when seed was grown at the Arnold Arboretum, which distributed plants a few years later to members. One of those original plants is featured at the end of this blog. Not only are the seedheads in late autumn spectacular, but the flowers are a lovely, pure white: it blooms much of August and September. If you come close you will smell an indescribable, sweet fragrance that is somehow tropical, rather like the exotic shape of the leaves with their long drip tips. The smell is strongest in the evening and at night--almost overpowering at times (but no one complains!). Here is a particularly floriferous plant I photographed ten years ago in Massachusetts. Here is the oldest specimen at Denver Botanic Gardens, planted in the late 1990's, already almost 20' tall. This is coming into full bloom right now, and should be spectacular much of the next month: do come sniff it! Here is the largest specimen in Colorado (that I know of): Solange Gignac, who worked 23 years at Denver Botanic Gardens, obtained one in 1983 the first year they were distributed--so this is now in its 30th year of growing. It is 30' tall and growing--a magnificent plant I would characterize as a tree. Not only are the flowers and seedheads beautiful, but the bark is appealing all times of year. A mature specimen develops a trunk rather like a Crepe Myrtle--mottled and glistening with time. This seems to have great cold hardiness and thrives in a variety of sites and soils. It needs average irrigation in Colorado (it is not a desert plant), but has such sterling qualities that Plant Select has promoted this as a recommended plant for Colorado Gardens. Solange Gignac passed away a week ago today: I know that every time I admire our wonderful specimens growing in several gardens around DBG (Rock Alpine Garden, Plantasia, Plant Select), I shall think of her, and her love of this plant. It's sweet fragrance will remind me of the years of sweet companionship and friendship, and her great contributions to our community and Helen Fowler Library.


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