Shrub or small tree, deciduous, 1–3(–10) m tall. Twigs glabrous. Leaf petiole 0.5–1.5 cm, glabrous; leaf blade elliptic, elliptic-lanceolate, or obovate-lanceolate, rarely lanceolate, 5–15 × 1.6–5 cm, leathery, glabrous, midvein abaxially raised, adaxially ± flat, secondary and fine veins distinctly raised on both surfaces, base cuneate, margin entire, sometimes sparsely sinuolate-serrulate towards apex, apex acuminate or shortly abruptly acuminate. Inflorescence umbellate, 3–8-flowered. Pedicel 1–2 cm, glabrous. Calyx glabrous; lobes ovate-lanceolate or triangular-lanceolate, 2–3 mm. Corolla pink, red, or white, broadly campanulate, 0.8–1.2 cm; lobes recurved, triangular-ovate. Stamens c. 4 mm; filaments pubescent. Ovary glabrous or densely pubescent. Capsule 5-angled, 7–12 mm; stalk erect, 2–3.5 mm. Flowering January – June, fruiting March – September. (Ruizheng & Stevens 2005).
Distribution China Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hainan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Yunnan Laos Vietnam
Habitat Mixed forests, hillsides, dry places; 600–1500(–2400) m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H3
Conservation status Not evaluated (NE)
This is one of the flowers traditionally brought into Chinese homes at the time of the New Year when Chinese lore tells us that large clusters of flowers will bring good luck. Historically, it was extensively harvested from mountainous areas in southern China, where it is native, and brought to market and sold as decoration for the holiday (Metcalf 1942). It was a common practice in the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) to place the cut branches in temples as deity offerings (Abel 1818; Goody 1993). This practice ceased, however, when an order in Hong Kong was put in place prohibiting the cutting of this handsome shrub to protect it from indiscriminate harvesting leading up to the Chinese New Year. By 1925 Enkianthus quinqueflorus was on a permanent list of protected plants (Jarrett 1932).
The beauty and elegance of this species justifies the reverence afforded it in Chinese culture and Bean states that “it is unsurpassed among enkianthuses in the size and beauty of the individual flowers and the clusters with their attendant pink bracts give a charming effect” (Bean 1981). Given its prominence in Chinese culture and the fact that it is, in part, native to Hong Kong and Vietnam – areas relatively accessible to westerners in the late 18th century – it was the first species that came to the awareness of the scientific community. Loureiro, who spent many years in Vietnam, encountered this species and established it as the type for his new genus in 1790 (Loureiro 1790). It first flowered in 1814 in Knight’s Royal Exotic Nursery at Chelsea (afterwards Veitch’s) having been introduced prior to that year. By 1835 it was in cultivation in North America where it was growing in the conservatories on the estate of Col. T.H. Perkins in Brokline, near Boston, Massachusetts. Teschemacher glowingly shares his admiration of this novel species, “we were more interested in the flowers of Enkianthus quinqueflora [sic]…imagine clusters of pinkish white pendulous flowers…the swelling nectaries of a most brilliant lake color, so transparent that the liquid honey in the interior cell may be easily discerned, the summit of the pistil, which although small is of the brightest and clearest emerald green, a perfect gem, defying the talent of the painter” (Teschemacher 1835).
Unlike nearly all other Enkianthus, this species is semi-evergreen and has traditionally been considered too tender for any but the mildest parts of our study area; in Bean’s day it required the protection of a cool greenhouse at Kew (Bean 1981). Despite its obvious horticultural merits, it has a very limited presence in cultivation – in an undated lecture on Enkianthus Charles Williams states he is not aware that it is in the horticultural trade in either the UK or the Netherlands, but there is a curious reference to its cultivation in the Paradise Garden at the new RHS Garden Bridgewater in the UK (Professional Gardeners’ Guild 2022) but this is erroneous; the Enkianthus growing there is another species (R. White pers. comm. 2023). It grows in the collection of the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden in Australia (Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah 2022) and at the JC Raulston Arboretum in the US (JC Raulston Arboretum 2022). While clearly not suitable for outdoor cultivation across large areas where most other species can be grown, there are certainly parts of the southeastern United States and perhaps the most favoured sites near San Francisco as well as some of the milder parts of Europe where success in growing this species outside might be achieved.