A small tree to c.9 m; less often a many-stemmed bush. Leaves ovate to suborbicular, c. 7–15 × 6–14 cm; base broadly cuneate to rounded or truncate or subcordate; tip abruptly acuminate with a drip-tip 1–4 cm long; marginal teeth few and deep (to 15 mm) but very irregular and sometimes with a tiny secondary tooth at the shoulder; petiole long (to 10 cm). Flowers in early spring. Fruit ripening in summer, each samara with a single seed at the centre, or rarely two. (Bean 1981; Smith 1946).
Distribution Japan Central Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu
Habitat Wet mountain forests, often near streams; 100–1600 m.
USDA Hardiness Zone 6
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Genetic studies suggest that the Japanese endemic Euptelea polyandra has been isolated from its lookalike ally from mainland Asia, E. pleiosperma, since the Miocene; during this long period the population has held its own in moist, sheltered woods and valleys, moving up and down the mountainsides in response to Ice Age climate fluctuations (Cao et al. 2016). It has long been quite widely cultivated in Japan as a curiosity (Smith 1946); its Japanese name, Fudazukura, translates as ‘cherry with (flowers in) tufts’, describing the abundant clusters of greatly elongated, crimson anthers which precede the spring foliage. The foliage itself flushes tomato-red before maturing to a vibrant moss-green; the way the red pigment can persist around the margin of the leaf highlights the peculiarly jagged nature of the teeth, which resemble the margin of a conch shell and which provide the distinctive signature of what might otherwise be viewed as a rather unassuming little tree.
This was the first Euptelea to be described, by Siebold and Zuccarini in 1840, and the first to reach the west, being introduced by Philipp von Siebold to the Netherlands in 1859 (Jacobson 1996); it was in England by 1877 (Edwards & Marshall 2019). Since then, it has remained marginally the commoner – or the less rare – of the two species in the UK at least; in 2022–3 it was offered by at least three specialist nurseries, while good specimens can be encountered in the largest gardens in all parts of the country. At the Oxford Botanic Garden, a shapely little tree had a trunk 27 cm thick at 50 cm in 2014, when it was nearing the end of its life: Euptelea always seem to be short-lived in cultivation, and regular irrigation may not have been enough on this occasion to aid a tree adapted to wet, shady conditions but planted in full sun in one of the driest and warmest parts of England. Regular trimming was also needed to prevent suckers and low sprouts from colonising its part of the Order Beds. Another good single-stemmed tree, in the old Swansea University Botanic Garden in Wales in 2000, had gone by 2013. In one of the late Maurice Mason’s vast and long-neglected gardens in Norfolk, a plant labelled E. pleiosperma but seeming to be E. polyandra had grown naturally with many stems and appeared capable of perpetuating itself with new shoots from the base, but by 2019 the older trunks were collapsing chaotically (Tree Register 2023).
This species’ adaptation to the low light conditions of densely wooded valleys suits it well for growing in Scotland. A bushy specimen in an open situation in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh gets just enough solar irradiation to develop its lovely reddish flush, without appearing to suffer drought stress. There are good plants further north again in the Dundee and the Cruickshank (Aberdeen) University Botanic Gardens: Euptelea polyandra is adapted to short but intense winters in its native mountains, and its limits in cultivation are unlikely to have been tested yet. Younger re-introductions include HONX 42, 8 m tall after 22 years at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and CU 92/26, 5 m after 21 years at Howick Hall in Northumberland (Tree Register 2023).
Although it is a species scarcely found outside the largest collections in Britain, Euptelea polyandra is even less well represented in mainland Europe and in North America. Given a moist spot with its roots in shade this should not be a difficult plant to grow, except in the hottest places: here is a tree whose quite charms surely deserve to be much more widely appreciated.