Rare in cultivation and very shy to flower, the thirty year old specimen of Emmenopterys henryi at the Garden has gone largely unnoticed by the visiting public and has never been in need of a common name until now. But then in September, the tree burst into flower for the first time ever at the Garden and only for perhaps the fifth time in the UK, garnering national media coverage and triggering a 13% rise in visitor numbers in the two weeks since flowering began.
In a case of good news travelling fast, visitors have come from as far away as the south-west, Manchester and the north-east just to catch a glimpse of the tree. Staff at the Garden report that around three-quarters of visitors immediately ask on arrival how to find the ‘Chinese tree from the news’, but since staff and visitors alike were finding the botanical name a real tongue twister, the help of Cambridge News readers was enlisted to find an everyday name that would reflect the qualities of the Garden’s tree.
Its botanical name consists of ‘Emmenopterys’ meaning ‘lasting wing’, alluding to the large white bracts that act as sails during seed dispersal, together with ‘henryi’, that refers to the Irish plant hunter, Augustine Henry who first discovered the tree in China in 1887. Suggestions from readers built on this and included ‘Shy Henryi’, ‘Hesitant Hal’ or ‘Henry V’ to reflect how rarely it flowers, while ‘China Star’, ‘Henry’s Star’ and ‘Blooming Henry’ highlighted the beautiful flowers. A close second to the winning entry was ‘Expecto Floresco’ suggested by C Tancell, meaning ‘to wait for, or hope for, flowering’. Nicci Steele-Williams of the customer services team at the Garden said, ‘The team liked this one because it sounds like a spell from Harry Potter!’
But the team (almost) unanimously voted for ‘Man Yang Tree’, the suggestion of Peter Phillips, aged 12, who had seen the plea for help on-line. Peter explains why: ‘Man Yang was the favourite Chinese plant collector of Augustine Henry, who was my great, great Uncle’.
Dr Tim Upson, Curator at the Botanic Garden, said:
While scientific names will always remain the only reliable way to make sure that, botanists and gardeners around the world are all referring to the same plant, botanical Latin can be difficult for many. Locally and nationally, common names can help engage people with the plant’s story. So we’re going to make a up a new plant label for our tree to include Peter’s lovely suggestion of Man Yang Tree.
The media coverage has also proved really useful for our research. As a result of one article, colleagues at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, got in touch to check the origin of the tree. There is a real possibility that our tree was produced by Kew’s micropropagation unit in 1980s from one of the original trees collected by Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson in 1907 which brought Emmenopterys henryi, or should I say Man Yang Tree, into Western cultivation, which would be very exciting for us.’ Not only would this be a connection back to one of the great plant hunters, but it would be of major conservation interest, since it would make our tree a living genetic link back to the original collection location in China, which is now largely deforested.'
Although the weather is cooling and the days are shortening, as long as there are no early frosts, staff at the Garden expect flowering to continue until at least the end of the month. The spectacular flowers arise in clusters, each one star-shaped, fragrant (they apparently smell of jelly tots!) 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. Our thirty-year old tree has made a fine specimen perhaps 30 ft tall, but in the wild, where they are now very rare due to deforestation, they can reach 150 ft.