In May 1844, while collecting in the Chusan Hills in China for the Horticultural Society of London (now the Royal Horticultural Society), the plant collector Robert Fortune collected seed and made a herbarium specimen from a small tree with pinnate leaves which he believed to be a new species. John Lindley, Secretary of the Horticultural Society and one of Britain’s foremost botanists, named it Fortunaea chinensis in honour of its ‘indefatigable discoverer’ and described the plant as ‘… the most remarkable genus found by Mr Fortune during his Chinese expedition’.
Unbeknownst to both of them, the plant had already been described and named Platycarya strobilacea just a year earlier from material collected by a German physician and natural scientist, Philipp von Siebold, whilst on a diplomatic mission to Japan. As the earlier name, Platycarya strobilacea takes precedence.
In nature, Platycarya strobilacea has a scrubby habit typical of many early colonising trees of woodland margins. The Garden’s best example, however, is grown as a focal point in Brookside Lawn, and has made a pleasing shape due to the lack of competition. It has fine, pinnate foliage and is truly an unusual plant in flower and fruit. The cylindrical male catkins are erect and are clustered around the female cone-like catkin in a candelabra-like arrangement, smelling faintly of Granny Smith apples!
As the rigid cone-like structure housing the female flowers matures, it turns from bright green to an attractive chestnut-brown. These cones remain on the tree into the next season, making it a plant for both summer and winter interest.
The prolifically-produced winged nutlets are wind-dispersed, a reminder that in the early Eocene epoch (approximately 56-34 million years ago), the family Juglandaceae, to which Platycarya belongs, was much more diverse than today. At the present time, species in the family with edible fruits dispersed by animals are predominant (for example, walnuts and hickories).
This tree is inexplicably rare in cultivation. It is easy to propagate from seed and, in the south at least, appears to grow vigorously and is proving more tolerant of our conditions than previously thought. With the current trends of weather patterns, combining higher temperatures and the potential for longer, drier periods, Platycarya strobilacea could succeed in many other areas of the country.