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A small tree to about 25 ft high in cultivation, of elegant, spreading habit; branchlets slender, at first rusty-hairy, later glabrous and grey-brown, with oval lenticels; winter buds ovoid, about 3⁄8 in. long, hairy at the tip. Leaves mostly 4 to 6 in. long including petiole, with nine to fourteen pairs of leaflets, the longest ones near or slightly below the middle of the leaf; rachis grooved, slightly winged, sparsely furnished beneath at first with pale brown hairs. Leaflets oblong-elliptic to oblong-lanceolate, 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 in. long and 1⁄4 in. or slightly less wide, obtuse at the apex but the midrib running out into a thread-like tip, broadly cuneate at the base, slit-toothed in the upper one-third to one-half, dark green and glabrous above, underside paler, glabrous except for some pale brown hairs on the midrib, lateral veins beneath inconspicuous and not very clearly differentiated from the minor reticulations. Flowers white, about 1⁄4 in. wide, borne in late May or early June, in rather lax, sparsely branched clusters; inflorescence branches and receptacle at first fairly densely but inconspicuously coated with pale brown hairs; calyx-lobes obtuse. Petals obovate, shortly clawed. Stamens shorter than the petals, with reddish purple anthers, darkening as they wither. Styles mostly three. Fruits globose or broadly ovoid, about 3⁄8 in. wide, deep pink at first, paling to almost pure white. Bot. Mag., t. 8241.
Native of northwest Yunnan, China, possibly extending into Szechwan; introduced by Père Delavay, who sent seeds to Maurice de Vilmorin in 1889. Where the seeds were collected is not recorded, but Delavay’s collections in 1888–9 were from the mountains that stretch northward from Lake Tali to the Lichiang Range. It was described by Schneider in 1906 from the original plant at Les Barres. This was a graft of one of the two original seedlings. both of which had come to an untimely end, and all the original stock of S. vilmorinii descends from this one individual. It set fertile fruit for the first time in 1903, but the tree received from M. de Vilmorin at Kew in autumn 1905 must have been a graft, as it flowered and fruited well in 1907. In the previous year seeds were provided by Vilmorin to British nurseries, and the first seedlings were sent out in 1909. The oldest extant tree, growing at Borde Hill in Sussex, came from Messrs Veitch in 1914. It is still in perfect health and vigour, and measured 25 × 33⁄4 ft at 1 ft in 1968.
S. vilmorinii was reintroduced by Forrest during his last expedition (1930–1), but even now is rarely seen outside collections, though it makes a charming tree of moderate size, with elegant foliage, fern-like when it first expands and colouring bronze or orange late in the autumn. The chief attraction is the pernettya-like fruits, which are fairly numerous in each cluster and all the more conspicuous from the individual clusters being so closely grouped on contiguous spurs. It received an Award of Merit in 1916.
This species is closely allied to S. ursina, but with smaller and more numerous leaflets.
S. ‘Pearly King’. – Near to S. vilmorinii but with larger leaflets, to 1 in. or slightly more long, in fewer pairs (mostly six to eight) and wider, more branched inflorescences. It is also of narrower habit, with straight, ascending main branches, but in flower and fruit it resembles S. vilmorinii. It is of unknown but probably wild origin. Grown under the erroneous name “S. pluripinnata”, properly a synonym of S. scalaris, it was given its present name by Messrs Hillier. An identical plant has been in commerce as S. vilmorinii robusta and what appears to have been a very similar one was distributed by Messrs Hesse of Germany as S. foliolosa.