Shrub or small tree, deciduous, 2.5–8 m tall. Twigs glabrous. Leaf petiole 0.5–1.5 cm, glabrous; leaf blade elliptic or oblong-elliptic, c. 1.5 × 1.5–2.5 cm, papery to thinly papery, glabrous, midvein raised abaxially, impressed adaxially; secondary and fine veins inconspicuous, base cuneate or broadly cuneate, margin serrulate, apex acute. Inflorescences corymbose-racemose or umbellate; rachis 3–7 cm, slender, 10–20-flowered, glabrous or pubescent. Pedicel 1.5–3 cm, slender, glabrous or pubescent. Calyx glabrous or slightly ciliolate; lobes triangular, 2–3 mm. Corolla yellowish orange-striped and red, broadly campanulate, 7–10 mm; lobes slightly recurved, usually dark red. Filaments puberulous. Ovary glabrous; style glabrous or pubescent. Capsule pendulous, 4–7 mm; stalk distinctly recurved, 1–3.5 cm. Flowering May–July, fruiting July–September (Ruizheng & Stevens 2005).
Distribution Myanmar China Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guizhou, Guangxi, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, Zhejiang
Habitat Mixed forests, disturbed forests, thickets, sunny mountain slopes, mountain ridges; 900–1200(–3100) m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 5-7
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Not evaluated (NE)
This fine shrub, native to much of central and western China and northeastern Myanmar, was introduced to cultivation in 1900. It bears a general resemblance to the Japanese E. campanulatus but, in fact, its closest relation is another species from mainland Asia, E. deflexus. The two are differentiated primarily by leaf characteristics: the abaxial leaf surface of E. chinensis is nearly glabrous while that of E. deflexus bears robust, often brown curly hairs, especially along the midrib, while the wide corolla (relative to length) help to distinguish it from E. campanulatus (R. White pers. comm. 2023). The attractive broad bell-shaped flowers are creamy-yellow, striated conspicuously with rose and with rose colored, recurved lobes (Bean 1981). A particularly fine and richly colored form appears in the lavishly illustrated Seeds of Adventure – In Search of Plants (Cox & Hutchison 2008, p. 88).
Wilson remarked that this was a fairly common shrub in western Hubei where he made repeated collections of this species (Sargent & Wilson 1913–1917). New introductions from several collecting trips including and since the landmark 1980 Sino-American Botanical Expedition (SABE) have enriched various gardens in North America and Europe. Two other major expedition series to central China, SICH and GUIZ, to Sichuan and Guizhou respectively, have also contributed to bolstering this taxon’s genetic diversity in cultivation. In North America it is better represented in west coast gardens, especially at Sonoma Botanical Garden near San Francisco, the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden near Seattle, and the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden in Vancouver. It is found only sporadically in eastern North American gardens but a specimen has been thriving at the Polly Hill Arboretum for several years, as has a plant at the Arnold Arboretum whose lineage connects directly to a SABE collection. In the UK, E. chinensis is relatively common, at least in botanic gardens and arboreta, where it is nearly as widely planted as E. campanulatus. RBG Edinburgh, along with its three satellite gardens – Benmore, Dawyck and Logan – all have wild-source material in their collections (Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2022). Older plants in British gardens include a specimen 5.4 m tall in 2021 at Sheffield Park, East Sussex, and another remarkable specimen, 9 m in 2014, growing in the sheltered and benign climate of Trewithen, Cornwall (Tree Register 2022). It is curious that there appear to be no named selections of this species.
Steve Hootman of the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden has encountered this species frequently during his excursions to China and references to it in articles written by him and others in that institution’s annual journal are not uncommon. A report following a 2010 expedition to Chongqing, Guizhou and Guangxi mentioned E. chinensis and E. serrulatus as being amongst the finest for their autumn colour amidst a diverse array of other deciduous trees and shrubs (Hootman 2012). Another trip report judged E. chinensis to be the most remarkable, bearing brilliant flowers appearing as ball-like gems.