Sycopsis Oliver

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Lucy Garton


Owen Johnson (2024)

Recommended citation
Johnson, O. (2024), 'Sycopsis' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online ( Accessed 2024-07-24.


  • Hamamelidaceae

Common Names

  • Fighazels
  • Evergreen Ironwoods

Species in genus


A group of genera more closely related to each other than to genera in other families. Names of families are identified by the suffix ‘-aceae’ (e.g. Myrtaceae) with a few traditional exceptions (e.g. Leguminosae).
(syn.) (botanical) An alternative or former name for a taxon usually considered to be invalid (often given in brackets). Synonyms arise when a taxon has been described more than once (the prior name usually being the one accepted as correct) or if an article of the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature has been contravened requiring the publishing of a new name. Developments in taxonomic thought may be reflected in an increasing list of synonyms as generic or specific concepts change over time.


Owen Johnson (2024)

Recommended citation
Johnson, O. (2024), 'Sycopsis' from the website Trees and Shrubs Online ( Accessed 2024-07-24.

Three species of shrub or small tree. Shoots glabrous or with stellate pubescence; buds alternate, naked. Leaves evergreen, entire or shallowly toothed towards the leaf-tip, often with sunken veins. Flowers crowded on a short dense spike, terminal on short side shoots, each flower with a conspicuous but not showy brown protective bract. Sepals 5 or 6; petals absent. Stamens 5–10, at the same level as the carpels and inserted on the margin of a floral cup which is rudimentary in the male flowers and urn-shaped in the bisexual flowers; anthers ellipsoid, reddish. Ovary superior but enclosed by the floral cup. Seed capsules with 2 valves, longer than the persistent floral cup; seeds narrowly ovoid. (Zhang, Zhang & Endress 2003; Walker 1944).

Sycopsis is one of several closely-related evergreen members of the Witch Hazel Family Hamamelidaceae, whose natural distribution extends westwards into the eastern Indian Himalaya from this group’s heartland in China and tropical eastern Asia. It is now considered to contain only three species, with other taxa having been transferred to Eustigma and Distyliopsis (Royal Botanic Gardens Kew 2023).

Daniel Oliver’s generic name means ‘fig-like’ in ancient Greek and compared the leaves of what he decribed as Sycopsis griffithiana to the characteristic foliage of many tropical species of Ficus; it is not so apt for the species which remain in Sycopsis, while the vernacular derivative ‘fighazel’, which is sometimes used in the United States for Sycopsis, could be felt to further muddy some already murky water.) Separating these genera is a question of closely studying often minute floral features (the flowers of Eustigma have petals; those of Distyliopsis and Distylium lack sepals, and those of Distylium lack the floral cup), but the methodology used by earlier botanists to estimate the evolutionary relationships between these plants continues to hold true in the light of contemporary phylogenetics (Dong et al. 2021).

Eustigma and Distyliopsis are essentially subtropical genera which seem absent (so far) from temperate collections. Of the species to remain in Sycopsis, S. sinensis Oliver has been grown in the west for over a century; its textured leaves with rather sunken veins offer one way of differentiating it from the few species of Distylium which are also grown in Europe and North America and which tend to carry flat and glossy leaves. S. griffithiana Oliv. is from the Khasia Hills, Assam, India; S. triplinervia H.T. Chang was described in 1960 from the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and north-eastern Yunnan. Neither is known to be in cultivation (Zhang, Zhang & Endress 2003; BGCI 2023). The name S. tutcheri, still occasionally encountered in western horticultural literature, is an old synonym for Distyliopsis tutcheri (Hemsl.) Endress, while the plants grown here under these names appear to belong within Distylium racemosum.

This necessarily dry account should not mislead gardeners into assuming that because these plants are difficult to identify, they should also be difficult to appreciate: among them, Sycopsis sinensis is a tree of considerable ornamental merit.