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Brian Robertshaw, John Grimshaw & Tom Christian (2020)
Robertshaw, B., Grimshaw, J. & Christian, T. (2020), 'Pseudotaxus chienii' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online (treesandshrubsonline.
The sole species, Pseudotaxus chienii, is very distinctive. A dioecious, evergreen shrub, up to 4 m tall (possibly higher in cultivation). Bark greyish-brown, becoming somewhat fibrous, peeling in strips with age. Branchlets pale green in the first year, maturing through pale orange-brown to reddish- or purplish-brown, with decurrent leaf bases broadening and becoming darker distally and with a dark band at the site of attachment to the leaf. The whole surface is minutely papillose and glabrous. Leaves spirally arranged, held irregularly in two distichous ranks either side of shoot. Leaves broadly lanceolate, 1–2.6 cm × 2–4.5 mm, apex apiculate with a mucro, margins minutely papillose in apical half and slightly revolute, base obtuse, with a short petiole; dark green above, glossy above in the first year, paler below with a protruding midrib set between two, broad, bright white stomatal bands, contrasting characteristically with the orange-brown branchlets. Pollen cones globose, 4–5 mm long, with 4 pairs of subopposite basal bracts, unique in bearing a pair of pherophylls (subtending leaves); seed cones with 7 pairs of basal, subopposite, outcurving bracts, with a cupular succulent white aril developing, 5–7(–8) × 4–5 mm, the slightly flattened seed exposed (as in Taxus). (Fu, Li & Mill 1999; Eckenwalder 2009; Debreczy & Rácz 2011; Farjon 2017).
Distribution China Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang
Habitat In warm-temperate forests, typically in moist rocky places such as on cliffs near waterfalls, or above watercourses, 700–1500 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 8
RHS Hardiness Rating H4
Conservation status Vulnerable (VU)
The White-berry Yew is one of several monospecific conifers endemic to central and southern China. A few of these have become garden staples (Metasequoia is perhaps the best example) but most, including this obscure shrub of dark forest understoreys, cliffs, gorges, and bluffs, have remained horticultural enigmas. Despite its obvious ornamental potential, Pseudotaxus chienii is still rarely cultivated either within or beyond China (Farjon 2017). Details of its introduction are sparse; writing in 1987 Keith Rushforth could state that it was not in UK cultivation, but within 20 years Page (2004) recorded that it was widely grown and proving hardy in Cornwall. Cuttings ostensibly of P. chienii were received at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 1992, sent from the Pinetum Blijdenstein in the Netherlands, but these were later shown to be Prumnopitys andina (M. Gardner, pers. comm. 2020). Unfortunately, before the misidentification was rectified, several of these were distributed to mild gardens in the southwest of England, and perhaps it was these Chris Page was referring to in 2004.
The earliest confirmed introduction we have traced was seed sent by Prof. Hong Tao of the Chinese Academy of Forestry to Arboretum Trompenburg in 1994, which was passed to the Fa. C. Esveld nursery in Boskoop for cultivation. This seed was derived from the mountains of Qu County, Zhejiang Province. A seedling was returned to Trompenburg in 1998, and was joined in 2001 by a plant donated by American nurseryman Talon Buchholz. Both fruited in 2009, but the seed did not germinate and the Esveld plant has since died and neither were ever thrifty (G. Fortgens, pers. comm. 2020). It seems likely that the Esveld nursery is the source for many of the plants now cultivated in Europe, but probably not the only one.
It may have been introduced to North America earlier than to Europe: Dan Hinkley (pers. comm. 2020) obtained a plant from a grower in Washington in the 1990s and was selling cuttings of unknown sex from Heronswood Nursery by at least 1999 (Heronswood Nursery Ltd. 1999). Sean Hogan was given germinating seeds from China by Talon Buchholz in 1997 and the plants have now reached 3.5 m at Cistus Nursery near Portland, Oregon. These are probably the largest in cultivation and indicate the species’ suitability for the Pacific Northwest.
Bedgebury National Pinetum in the United Kingdom has shown that it can be successfully grown under the same conditions as many Taxus species, and in common with that genus it is easily raised from cuttings. The four female plants in the collection at Bedgebury were obtained as plants from Esveld Nursery, the Netherlands, and planted in 2007. It continues to be offered by the Esveld nursery; their online catalogue says ‘very rare; behaviour not known’ (Plantentuin Esveld 2020). The Bedgebury specimens now measure 1.5–2.2 m in height, with many outward arching branches and pendulous branchlets. They develop arils but not viable seed (there are no males in the collection) and in winter the foliage takes on attractive reddish-bronzing where exposed to the winter sun (BR pers. obs.). Thomas & Yang (2018) observe that wild plants become stunted, low shrubs when exposed to full sun.
Since their planting the Bedgebury examples have tolerated temperatures as low as –11.7° C in 2012 and annually less than –5° C. Recently they have been extensively propagated for distribution to other UK collections, which will provide an opportunity for more widespread testing. Elsewhere, plants from the same source have reached 1.2–1.5 m in Arboretum-Pinetum Lucus Augusti in Spain, at least one of which is known to be female. Plants in other European collections, for example at the Folly Arboretum and others in Hungary, may also be from Esveld (T. Christian, pers. obs. 2019). In North America, Arnold Arboretum records show the species growing poorly in Boston, where the climate may be too harsh. Of the 8 plants at the Arnold for which information is available, only one of 0.3 m height still survives and is in poor condition (Arnold Arboretum 2020). Similarly, the one specimen in the Morris Arboretum has formed a low plagiotropic plant around 0.3 m tall and 1 m in spread (Anthony S. Aiello, pers. comm. 2020). Dan Hinkley (pers. comm. 2020) collected cuttings from a single plant in the Mangshan in Hunan in 2015 (DJHHu 15090) and plants from these are now established in Washington, but have not yet become fertile so their sex remains unknown. ‘It grew with Pinus kwangtungensis and Exbucklandia. It was a very odd yet beautiful combination of foliages together.’
This poor performance in a continental climate is unsurprising in the context of the species’ ecology in the wild. Its associates include several taxa that would not be expected to thrive in such areas, for example Schima superba, Rhododendron simianum, Podocarpus neriifolius and Fokienia hodginsii (Debreczy & Rácz 2011). In spite of its extensive range it is rare everywhere, and it is estimated that 98% of all plants occur in Zhejiang Province, while it is believed to have become locally extinct in some areas (Thomas & Yang 2018).