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Tree to 35 m, 0.8 m dbh; crown densely branched. Bark purplish red to grey, scaly and peeling. Branchlets grey or greyish brown, covered with whitish pubescence. Leaves thickly papery, 3–10 × 1.5–4 cm, ovate to elliptic-lanceolate, upper surface greenish brown and strigose, lower surface green to reddish purple and densely pubescent, 8–15 secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins serrate to crenate, apex acuminate to acute; petiole 0.3–0.7 cm long, pubescent; stipules linear to lanceolate, to 0.9 cm long. Staminate flowers solitary or in clusters of two to three; pistillate and hermaphrodite flowers usually solitary. Drupe pea-green, subsessile, 0.2–0.4 cm diameter, covered in an irregular network of ridges. Flowering April, fruiting September to November (China). Fu et al. 2003. Distribution CHINA: Anhui, Fujian, southern Gansu, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, southern Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, southern Shaanxi, southeast Sichuan, southeast Xizang, Yunnan, Zhejiang. Habitat Along streams, between 200 and 1100(–2800) m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 5. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration Andrews 1994, Valder 1999, Fu et al. 2003; NT905, NT907. Cross-references S529, K467. Taxonomic note Zelkova schneideriana appears to be closely related to Z. serrata, differing in its densely grey-white pubescent new shoots (glabrous or sparsely pubescent in Z. serrata) and in its much hairier leaves. Both differ from the other Chinese species, Z. sinica, in having smaller, rough-surfaced drupes (0.5–0.7 cm in Z. sinica, with a smooth surface) (Fu et al. 2003). Richard Olsen has drawn attention to Ohwi’s (1965) tentative linking of Z. serrata var. stipulacea Makino from Honshu with Z. schneideriana: var. stipulacea has ‘leaves pilose on both surfaces’, suggesting that there is variability in this feature in Z. serrata. It could be that Z. schneideriana is in fact a western expression of Z. serrata.
Zelkova schneideriana was discovered in western China by that interesting character, the Austrian botanist Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti, whose explorations in China are often overlooked by anglophones in favour of the more accessible tales of Wilson, Farrer, Forrest, Kingdon-Ward et al. (although his account of his travels is now available in English: Winstanley 1996). He named it in honour of his colleague Camillo Schneider, with whom he had travelled in China (1913–1915) and who was responsible for the naming of many Chinese discoveries. Handel-Mazzetti and Schneider did not, however, introduce seed of Z. schneideriana.
The earliest introduction attributed to Z. schneideriana was of seed presented to the Bureau of Plant Industry of the US Department of Agriculture by the director of the Sun Yat-Sen Tomb and Memorial Park Commission, Nanjing, China on 16 April 1934 and given the accession number PI 105331. Originally received as Z. serrata, it was identified as Z. schneideriana by the late US National Arboretum taxonomist Frederick G. Meyer in 1973 (USNA herbarium specimen F.G. Meyer s.n. 19 Sept. 1973), and by research geneticist Frank Santamour, Jr., and confirmed by Stephen Spongberg in 1986 (US National Arboretum records, via R. Olsen, pers. comm. 2009). From this has grown a beautiful, round-crowned tree at the Glenn Dale Plant Introduction Station, Maryland, noted for its magnificent red autumn display. By the late 1980s several further specimens had been planted in the Washington DC area, including what is now a nice tree in the grounds of the US Capitol (R. Olsen, pers. comm. 2009).
Elsewhere the early introductions of Z. schneideriana are somewhat obscure. According to Andrews (1994) it was growing in France in the Arboretum National des Barres by 1965, but no earlier records can be traced. New material began to arrive from China in the late 1970s, and most trees in cultivation derive from introductions made in this period, specimens now being found in collections across our area.
Among the first known in the United Kingdom were grown by Harry Hay in his Surrey garden, from Chinese seed received in 1977. The young trees did well at first, then died back and resprouted as multistemmed coppices. By 1993 they were 6 m tall, but in the 1990s most succumbed to inundation in a very wet winter: the sole survivor has three stems and is now 8 m tall (Andrews 1994; H. Hay, pers. comm. 2008). Kew also received seed in 1977, from Nanjing, and trees from this were 7 m and 8 m tall in 2001 (TROBI). Similarly, the US National Arboretum received seed from the Chinese Academy of Forestry in 1981, and the oldest specimen at the Arnold Arboretum was accessioned in 1979. A NACPEC expedition introduced seed from Hubei in 1994, from which trees are growing in several American collections, including the Morris Arboretum where it does well. The finest seen in the research for New Trees was a specimen of about 12 m (53 cm dbh) in 2006, at the JC Raulston Arboretum (planting date unknown), forming a good rounded crown from four principal vertical stems. The British champion was 10 m (28 cm dbh) in 2006, growing at the Royal Horticultural Society’s garden Rosemoor, in Devon (TROBI). In arboreta, where it is grown as a specimen in the open it is most often seen as a dome-shaped tree with wide-spreading limbs – sometimes wider than tall – but it is evident that in woodland conditions it can develop a much taller, narrower shape (Valder 1999). The foliage is a dullish green through the summer. It can turn a fabulous red in autumn, perhaps especially in North America, but does not invariably do so: at Arboretum Wespelaar it does not colour well, and Koen Camelbeke (pers. comm. 2008) also comments that it is ‘one of those plants that one goes by without paying any attention to it’. Many, however, would disagree with this, and consider Z. schneideriana a very worthy new tree.