Large evergreen tree, to 30 m tall, to 1 m dbh. Leaf blade elliptic, oblong-elliptic, or rarely obovate-elliptic, 5.5–9.5 × 2–4 cm, leathery; upper surface glossy, reddish brown when young, becoming deep green; secondary veins 7–13 on each side of midvein; base cuneate; apex acute to acuminate. Petiole 1–4 cm. Flowers all hermaphrodite, fragrant. Tepals ~12; outer 3 tepals purplish red at middle outside, obovate to spoon-shaped, 4–5 × 2.3–2.5 cm; tepals of inner 3 whorls creamy white to pale yellow, gradually smaller. Stamens 1–1.7 cm; connective exserted ~3 mm; anthers ~1 cm. Gynoecium green; styles red. Fruit green, ellipsoid-ovoid, 5–7.5 cm; testa bright yellow / orange. Flowering March–May (China), March–April (UK); fruiting September–October (China). (Xia, Liu & Nooteboom 2008).
Distribution Myanmar North China SE Xizang, NW Yunnan
Habitat Evergreen broad-leaved forests; 1800–2500 m.
USDA Hardiness Zone 9-10
RHS Hardiness Rating H3
Conservation status Vulnerable (VU)
An erect evergreen shrub or ultimately a small tree, M. nitida has highly fragrant flowers, sometimes with pale yellow tepals. However, it is most prized for its very glossy leaves, bronzed when young, which give rise to the specific epithet. ‘It has the most lovely foliage, the leaves being more highly polished than any evergreen leaf that I know of – better than the best hollies. The young growth is bronze, also very highly polished. The leaf has a silver edge to it. If you hold it up, so that the sun is behind it, you will see that silver edge all the way round each leaf’ (Johnstone 1955). The seed is also particularly attractive, being a beautiful shade of orange, within a striking grass-green 7.5 cm-long seed cone. Rather tender, it is only suited to the mildest gardens in our area. A rich, moisture-retentive, preferably acidic soil in dappled shade suits this rare species.
It was first described scientifically from specimens collected by George Forrest in 1917 on the Mekong-Salween Divide in NW Yunnan; Forrest noted that the fruit was strongly aromatic (Smith 1920). Seed followed from a later Forrest collection (Bean 1981). In 1919 Reginald Farrer also found it in N Myanmar, in ‘a frontier outpost bordering northwest Yunnan where it was growing at 8000 ft [2400 m] on the fringes of the forest with a bitter winter and a complete absence of ripening heat or light in the summer’.
Until this species is seen in flower, the first thought is that it must belong to Section Michelia. However, it is easily distinguished by the terminal rather than axillary flower buds. M. nitida belongs to Section Gynopodium, along with M. lotungensis and M. yunnanensis (q.v.), both of them hexaploids with male as well as hermaphrodite flowers, and which have sometimes been sunk into synonymy with M. nitida.
In gardens it forms either a large, conical shrub or a small columnar tree to about 9 m. Whether these represent different introductions, or whether the shrub is merely a juvenile growth form, remains unclear. The best forms, with pale primrose-yellow tepals, streaked purple down the outer ones, seem only to make shrubs.
In the British Isles M. nitida is hardy only in localities which provide it with adequate shelter and frost protection – it has been grown successfully in a few Cornish gardens (notably Caerhays Castle, where the largest currently surviving had reached 9 m × 98 cm by 2016 – Tree Register 2021), and at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. Colonel Stephenson Clarke grew plants against south- and east-facing walls at Borde Hill, Sussex. The microclimate of the south wall proved too hot and dry, whereas the protection of the east wall enabled it to thrive until the severe winter of 1939. It is sometimes available from British nurseries, and with the trend towards milder winters, wider experimentation seems worthwhile.
Scarcely known in North America, plants in Vancouver, BC from Caerhays seed succumbed to –13 °C (Wharton 2007), but specimens from a later introduction survive in the David C Lam Asian Garden (University of British Columbia 2021). In New Zealand a good specimen is growing in the garden of Mark and Abbie Jury at Tikorangi on the western side of North Island.