(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 2, 2008. Your questions and comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Heptacodium miconioides, the Chinese Seven-Son-Flower plant, tends to grow as a mulistemmed shrub. If you want a tree instead, just eliminate all but one of the stems by cutting them off completely. The remaining stem will grow into a tree. It won't send up any more stems once you've done the cutting. At least that has been the case here at Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens. In tree form, it will grow to about 20 feet at maturity, with a loose, open habit. The photo at the right is of a 15-year-old specimen in our gardens.
What else is so great about this shrub/tree? It blooms in late summer, when no other trees are in flower. The blossoms are white and are borne in clusters of seven, hence it's common name. Their sweet perfume attracts bees and often great swarms of Monarch butterflies. Once the petals fall off, the calyx that held them in place enlarges and turns a rosy pink. Then the tree blooms pink for several weeks. For its fall finale, if conditions are right, it produces red leaves. As if that's not enough, its bark exfoliates (sloughs off), revealing a light tawny orange pattern that's unique among trees or shrubs of any variety. What's more, it's bone hardy, has no serious insect or disease problems, and is adaptable to most any soil type. The best flower display occurs when it's planted in full sun.
Heptacodium was introduced to the Western Hemisphere by plant explorer Ernest H. Wilson (1876-1930). Wilson was employed by Harvard University's Arnold Arboretum to travel the world (but primarily to China) seeking rare plants. He was born in Chipping Camden, England, and spent his entire life in the world of horticulture. In his later years he made Worcester, Massachusetts, his home and died there on October 15, 1930, in an automobile accident. He introduced many plants to gardeners that are now mainstays in gardens the world over. Among them are the Regal Lily, many varieties of clematis, barberry, and, interestingly, the kiwi fruit we now find in the produce isles of supermarkets.
Native to the Zhejiang Province in China, Heptacodium, for some inexplicable reason, remained obscure until 1980. In fact no one in the United States was growing this plant anymore and it had to be reintroduced from China, where it is now rare. Stephen Spongberg, one of the members of the 1980 expedition, noted recently: "Today there are undoubtedly more individual plants in cultivation in North America than in all of China." It was through the Arnold Arboretum's promotional efforts that the nursery trade finally sat up and took notice of this remarkable plant. In a relatively short period of time the nursery community has embraced Heptacodium and has begun to make it available to the public. It's still difficult to find here in the Midwest, but I'm told that it has become wildly popular on the East Coast.
If you're fascinated by and would like to grow Heptacodium, you might call or visit any of the larger garden centers near you. If you have no luck there, mail order is always an option. Wayside Gardens is a pioneer in offering Heptacodium to its customers. In fact, wholesale nurseries often bought their initial stock from Wayside. Other mail order options include: Avant Gardens, Forestfarm, and Rarefind Nursery. To check out how your fellow Dave's Garden visitors have rated these companies, click on their names below. (Wayside Gardens is last in the list for a reason. If you check it out, you'll discover why.)
© Larry Rettig 2008
Thanks to Victorgardener for the use of his Plant Files photo above showing a close-up of the white Heptacodium blossoms.