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Heatwave brings rare tree to flower for just the fourth time in 90 years

Emmenopterys henryi, a deciduous tree that’s native to central and south-western China, planted in 1928 at Borde Hill in Haywards Heath, is about to burst into a mass of bloom thanks to an exceptionally cold winter followed by this great heatwave across the UK.

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 4 times in the country on record to date.

Borde Hill’s largest specimen celebrates it’s 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 about to burst forth in bloom for just the fourth time in it’s lifetime. Close by the 90 year old tree is a smaller Emmenopterys a specimen from Kew Gardens, collected by EH Wilson at turn of the 20th century. This tree, now 40 years old, has flowered twice before and is currently covered in buds too.

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 bud and about to bloom 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 in to Western cultivation including the Emmenopterys henryi.

Forrest’s prize Emmenopterys tree is strikingly beautiful with reddish-purple young shoots and red leaves in spring, which mature to a glossy green, producing a shock of small white flowers.

Andy Stevens, head gardener at Borde Hill says: “The cold winter, followed by our extended heatwave may have helped to produce this bumper collection of buds this year. We had a small showing of flowers in 2011 and 2016 but nothing like the number of buds we have this year. We hope that the blooms and this heatwave will bring in tree fans from far and wide!”

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