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A small, much branched tree or tall shrub, mostly 15 to 20 ft high, rarely attaining 50 ft in the wild; young branchlets densely white-downy or white-tomentose. Leaves crowded on the short lateral branches, more widely spread on the longer shoots, very shortly stalked, ovate or oblong-ovate, cordate, truncate or rounded at the base, obtuse at the apex, coarsely toothed, with four or five (rarely six) teeth on each side, mostly 3⁄8 to 1 in. long and 5⁄16 to 3⁄4 in. wide, sometimes to 13⁄8 in. long and 3⁄4 in. wide, dark green and with scattered hairs above, lower surface whitish or light green, downy (densely so along the midrib and main veins). Fruits clustered, rounded, or deeply two- or three-lobed, about 3⁄16 in. long, brown, downy.
Native of Crete (there is one unsubstantiated record from Cyprus). It is allied to Z. carpinifolia, but with much smaller leaves edged with fewer teeth. Some specimens of Z. carpinifolia from Iran have small leaves and hairy young shoots and leaves, as in Z. abelicea, but the number of marginal teeth is greater (nine to eleven).
The first account of this species was contained in a letter to Clusius (Charles d’Escluse) from Honorius Bellus (Onorio Belli), written from Cydonia (Kandia) in October 1594, and published in Clusius’ Rariorum Plantarum Hisioria (1601). Bellus gave a brief description of the plant, which he called ‘Abelicea’ from its Greek name apelikea. He mentioned that the scent of the wood and sawdust resembled that of sandalwood, ‘whence it may be called Pseudosantalus Creticus.’ This name was taken up by Caspar Bauhin in his Pinax (1623) and was the basis on which Spach named the plant Zelkova cretica in 1842. But Lamarck had named it Quercus abelicea in 1785. The epithet abelicea was the first to be applied to the plant under the Linnean system of nomenclature and is the one that must be used.
In his letter (see above) Bellus said he was sending seeds, but Clusius makes no reference to them. The first recorded introduction to Britain was in 1929, when Major Bonakis collected plants in the Levka Mountains, which were flown to England from Soudhas Bay by a flying-boat of Imperial Airways. The introduction was arranged by G. P. Baker; see his article in Journ. R.H.S., Vol. 54 (1929), pp. 389, 392-3 and figs 141, 142.
There are two thriving examples of Z. abelicea at Kew, one with a single trunk and about 20 ft high, the other with several stems and about 15 ft high. The species is also represented in the R.H.S. Garden at Wisley.
For an interesting note on this species in its native habitat by John Simmons, Curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, see The Garden (Journ. R.H.S.), Vol. 104, pp. 249-51 (1979).
The specimen in the R.H.S. Garden at Wisley is about 40 ft high with two stems each 21⁄2 ft in girth. The Kew plant is almost exactly the same size and both are from the introduction of 1929.