Deciduous shrub to 4 m. Bark dark grey. Young branchlets slender, grey-green ageing brown, glabrous, with many lenticels. Winter buds horn-shaped, ~5 mm. Leaves pinnately veined, with 4 pairs of lateral veins, glabrous; blade membranous, ovate or elliptic, 5–9 × 2.5–4 cm, dark green above, pale and glaucus beneath; base broadly cuneate; margin entire; apex acuminate; petiole 0.5–1 cm. Umbels to either side of leaf buds, on ~4 mm glabrous peduncles, each umbel with 4 involucral bracts and 5 flowers. Flowers yellow-green, on 8–10 mm pedicels; tepals with dense white pubescence at least on the inner surface; male flowers with fertile stamens, all the same length; female flowers with reduced, fasciated staminodes and a disc-shaped stigma. Fruit globose, brownish at maturity, to 1.5 cm across. Flowering March (China), March–April (S England), fruiting September (China). (Cui & van der Werff 2008; Bean 1981; Ohwi 1965).
Distribution China Anhui, Hubei, Zhejiang Japan Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu
Habitat Thickets on hills or mountain slopes; understorey in plantations.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7-9
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Not evaluated (NE)
Grown in the west for more than 100 years, Lindera praecox has made surprisingly little impact in gardens considering its capacity for fine autumn colour, rivalling L. erythrocarpa, L. obtusiloba and L. triloba. Blackhall-Miles (2014) claims its ‘transition from bright green through deep claret red to sunshine yellow’ as ‘one of the most spectacular autumn displays I know’. A large shrub with yellow-green flowers on bare stems in spring, it has unusually large fruits, as much as 1.5 cm in diameter, although they age from green only to brownish. A sexual rather than apomictic species (Nakamura et al. 2021), both male and female plants are required for fruit set. Fertile soil, not too dry in summer, in full sun to light shade is probably ideal; as a wild plant in Japan it appears more shade tolerant than L. triloba, but tends towards moister sites (Nakagawa et al. 2015). While reasonably hardy, warm summers probably help this plant of eastern China and Japan to flower well. Bean (1981) noted that at Kew it only flowered well against a wall.
One of the species with pinnately veined deciduous leaves, it shares its horn-shaped terminal buds with L. reflexa, but differs in having less conspicuous grey-green (rather than yellow-green) branchlets which have far more conspicuous lenticels; its fruits are also larger and the leaves smaller (Cui & van der Werff 2008.
Lindera praecox has been in western gardens since the late 19th century. Perhaps the first recorded introduction was by the art collector and high-society Bostonian William S. Bigelow, who spent much of the 1880s in Japan. A wild-origin stock (now lost) was grown at the Arnold Arboretum from 1891, received from ‘Dr Bigelow’ (Arnold Arboretum 2023). It was available from European nurseries by 1912 (Arnold Arboretum 2023), while Clarke (1988) recorded three old plants at Kew, received from the Yokohama Nurseries in 1906. Botanic garden seed exchanges and imports from Japanese nurseries have continued. More recent wild collections include Spongberg & Weaver 317 (N Honshu 1977 – Arnold Arboretum 2023), and several RBG Edinburgh collections from Honshu grown in Edinburgh and at its satellite gardens in Scotland (BBJMT 73 of 2005, BCJMM 14 of 2007, EIJKE 35 & 46 of 2013 – Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh 2023). Crûg Farm has made several commercial introductions, again from Japan: BSWJ 10802 (2005), 10953 (Honshu 2006) and 11457 (Kyushu 2006). Whether these various introductions vary in garden performance remains unclear. Chinese-provenance material is conspicuous by its rarity, although a plant from Hunan at Tregrehan, UK has been attributed to this species (Jan De Langhe pers. comm. 2023).
By no means common in gardens, it is hardy enough to be seen in large collections on both seaboards of North America (JC Raulston Arboretum 2023; Arnold Arboretum 2023; University of British Columbia 2023; University of California Botanical Garden 2023), at Westonbirt National Arboretum in England (Forestry England 2023) as well as in Scotland (above), and in several large Belgian collections (Plantcol 2023).
Raulston (1993) mentions a Japanese clone with irregular white variegation on foliage, which tended to fade in the summer heat of North Carolina; it was lost at the JC Raulston Arboretum, and we can find no other trace of it in our area, at least.