Parrotiopsis jacquemontiana (Decne.) Rehd.

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Lucy Garton

Credits

Owen Johnson (2024)

Recommended citation
Johnson, O. (2024), 'Parrotiopsis jacquemontiana' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online (treesandshrubsonline.org/articles/parrotiopsis/parrotiopsis-jacquemontiana/). Accessed 2024-06-17.

Common Names

  • Flowering Ironwood
  • Flowering Parrotia

Synonyms

  • Fothergilla involucrata Falconer
  • Parrotiopsis involucrata (Falconer) Schneid.
  • Parrotia jacquemontiana Decne.

Bush or small tree, to 5 m. Bark grey, smooth. Young shoots with stellate hairs. Leaves suborbicular, 5–9 × 4–8 cm; margin crenate serrate; both sides with stellate hairs, which are densest under the veins; petiole short (6–12 mm). Flowers opening before the leaves then continuing to appear sparsely through to midsummer, c. 20 clustered in a globose head which is c. 18 mm wide; stamens long, yellow; bracts 4–6, ovate to orbicular, white, each 12–25 mm long. Seed ellipsoid, c. 6 mm long, shining brown. (Ali 2011; Bean 1976).

Distribution  Afghanistan In the Hindu Kush mountains India In the western Himalaya Pakistan In the Himalaya

Habitat Mountain forests at medium elevations (1200–2800 m asl); often gregarious.

USDA Hardiness Zone 5-6a

RHS Hardiness Rating H6

Conservation status Least concern (LC)

This large shrub – which is long-lived and, in the wild at least, ultimately becomes a small tree – is of botanical interest as the only close ally of Parrotia, Distylium etc. to survive in any of the biomes that lie between the Transcaucasus (home of the Persian Ironwood Parrotia persica) and the mountain forest east of the Himalaya where many closely related species still cluster. It is also of horticultural interest as the only member of this group to bear showy, insect-pollinated flowers; the name Flowering Ironwood or Flowering Parrotia is suggested here as a way of making this seldom-seen but delightful plant a little better known to western gardeners.

The floral structure – petal-like white bracts serving to show off a cluster of stamens – resembles that of Cornus kousa and Davidia involucrata, although it has to be admitted that Parrotiopsis is not even nearly in the same league as those superb flowering trees. The stamens and anthers of Parrotiopsis are bright yellow (in most close allies they are reddish) and the entire floral structure is sometimes compared to a miniature poached egg. One advantage is that these interesting flowers can be seen over a period of three or four months, although they are only really eyecatching in mid-spring just before the leaves open; a dark backdrop will highlight them. Autumn colour is late and may be yellow, but in the eastern United States, where fall colours are often brightest, this is described as minimal (Dirr 2009). The habit is upright at first and ultimately quite graceful, but the adult bark lacks the colourful flakes of Parrotia persica.

In its native mountain forests Parrotiopsis is a common understory plant, often growing in dense masses (Ali 2011). The hard close-grained timber never comes in large baulks but is used locally for tool handles and walking sticks, while the wiry twigs used to be woven to make baskets and also rope bridges across mountain ravines (Cambridge University Botanic Garden 2023). The leaves were also used extensively in local herbal medicine, and more recently a range of compounds in the foliage have been found to have significant antibacterial and antifungal properties (Ali et al. 2018), while an oil extract shows potential in cancer treatment (Ali et al. 2021).

This plant was first collected by the French botanist and explorer Victor Jacquemont, who travelled in India between 1829 and his death from cholera three years later at the age of only 31 (Wikipedia 2023); it was named Parrotia jacquemontiana in his memory by Joseph Decaisne. By the time that all four volumes of Jacquemont’s Voyage dans l’Inde pendant les années 1828 à 1832 had been published (including Decaisne’s botanical descriptions), the Scottish botanist and geologist Hugh Falconer had also independently studied the species, describing it in 1839 under the name Fothergilla involucrata. (Fothergilla as now understood is a New World genus of four shrubs, slightly less closely related to Parrotia than is Parrotiopsis; neither genus bears flowers with petal-like bracts.) A new genus Parrotiopsis was created by Camillo Schneider in 1905 to more accurately reflect the species’ distinctiveness, but Schneider concluded that Falconer’s specific name had precedence; it was not until 1920 that Alfred Rehder published the now universally accepted combination Parrotiopsis jacquemontiana (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2023).

This all-too-common story of nomenclatural confusion may have contributed to this endearingly distinctive plant remaining more obscure in cultivation than it might have been if – as is the case for Parrotia persica – it had always gone by the same botanical name. Like Parrotia this is certainly an easy plant to grow, tolerating heat and drought but very hardy, resilient against almost all pests and diseases, and preferring an acidic soil rich in organic matter but coping above chalk if there are a couple of feet of topsoil (Edwards & Marshall 2019). More likely, though, is the simple fact that its quiet charm has never excited the same admiration as has an incalcuable range of showier woody plants; W.J. Bean set a tone that continues to this day when he said Parrotiopsis has ‘no claim to a place among showy plants’ (Bean 1976). Seed was sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1879 (Bean 1976); the Gardens’ present-day representative is an old specimen (mentioned in Bean’s account) but lacking a known accession date; it continues to flourish in woodland shelter just south of the Pagoda. At 4.5 m tall but at least twice as broad, with several trunks up to 18 cm thick towards the base, this is the UK champion for a species which, in cultivation at least, always seems to remain more of a shrub (Tree Register 2023).

Parrotiopsis jacquemoniana can be propagated reliably by cuttings or layers (Bean 1976; Dirr 2009); seeds can take 18 months to germinate and seem to need a strong alternation of cold and warmth (Wott 2017). A large collection of seed made in Kashmir in 1956 by the English botanist and traveller Oleg Polunin made the plant a little more widespread in cultivation; three specimens surviving at the Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, USA, are from Polunin’s re-introduction (Wott 2017). A thriving specimen at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, Ohio, illustrated below, indicates that it can be happy in a continental climate. The species is currently available from a select group of nurseries specialising in rare ornamentals, including in Australia (e.g. Teese 2023) and New Zealand (e.g. Greenleaf Nurseries 2023). The conclusion of any gardener who takes the time to look at the Flowering Parrotia is likely to smack of déjà vu: here is yet another fascinating and attractive plant which surely deserves to be better known.