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Tree to 10 m, 60 cm dbh; single-stemmed. Bark dark brown. Branchlets dark brown. Leaf buds terminal or axillary, conical; floral buds lateral and in pairs, covered in yellowish brown trichomes. Leaves deciduous, 6–11(–30) × 2.8–5.5 cm, elliptic to lanceolate, upper surface glabrous and with deeply impressed veins, lower surface with dense greyish white trichomes, clusters of long, grey trichomes in vein axils, five to six secondary veins on each side of the midvein, margins entire, apex acuminate to caudate; petiole 1.2–2.5 cm long. Inflorescence umbellate and lateral, produced before the leaves, 2–3 cm diameter with 25–50 flowers; floral bracts papery or leathery, inconspicuous, pubescent, 0.6–0.7 cm long. Flowers hermaphrodite, rather inconspicuous, with lanceolate petals to 0.4 cm long. Fruit a black drupe, 0.6–1 × 0.4 cm; stones ribbed. Flowering March to April, fruiting September (China). Weaver 1976, Gardener 1979, Xiang et al. 2003, Cappiello & Shadow 2005, Xiang & Boufford 2005. Distribution CHINA: Gansu, Guangdong, Guizhou, Henan, Hubei, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Xizang, Yunnan, Zhejiang; MYANMAR (?). Habitat Dense forest, forest margins and slopes between 700 and 3500 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 8–9. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration NT15, NT265. Cross-references B706, K368.
The seismic circumstances of the first collection of seed of this species, in Assam in 1950, were vividly recounted by Frank Kingdon-Ward (Kingdon-Ward 1960), but the derivative seedlings (KW 19300) did not prove generally hardy, though they were successful under glass (Bean 1976a) and in very mild situations, such as at Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight. In consequence, Cornus chinensis did not become firmly established in cultivation until much more recently, following its collection by several expeditions to Sichuan. These included SICH expeditions in 1988 and 1992 (SICH 307 and SICH 1222, respectively), the species being found, in both cases, in rich forests of broadleaved trees at between 2400 and 2500 m asl. Trees from these collections are growing well at Kew and have reached 5 m in height. There are several individuals from SICH 307 at Quarryhill and these too are flourishing (H. Higson, pers. comm. 2007), as also are specimens in Vancouver, the largest of which is a fine 7 m, ‘suggesting a Cornelian Cherry [C. mas] on steroids’ (P. Wharton, pers. comm. 2007). In the United States C. chinensis has been distributed from Heronswood Nursery, from a collection made in Sichuan by Dan Hinkley (DJHC 819) in 1996, and it has also been offered by Forestfarm Nursery, Oregon (without information on provenance). Cornus chinensis is a spectacular foliage plant, with ribbed, long-acuminate leaves that emerge with a pinkish tinge (Heronswood Nursery catalogue 2000) and colour to yellow with a pinkish tinge in autumn (D. Hinkley, pers. comm. 2007), and showy clusters of yellow flowers in early spring. The tenderness of the famously large-leaved Assamese stock has long been regretted by gardeners, so the apparently much greater hardiness of recent introductions is very welcome, even though the leaves are smaller. Dan Hinkley (pers. comm. 2007) even goes so far as to say that he considers it as hardy as C. mas.