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Daphniphyllum is the only genus in the Daphniphyllaceae and comprises 29 species in temperate and tropical southeast Asia (Govaerts 2002c). They are evergreen, dioecious trees or shrubs. The leaves are simple, alternate, fasciculate, whorled or rarely opposite; stipules are absent. The lamina is membranous to leathery, green or yellow ish green, sometimes shiny above and often glaucous and papillate below; the margins are typically entire and revolute. Inflorescences are axillary or rarely subterminal, racemose, with one to several whorls of bracts at the base; the bracts may be larger than the flowers. The tiny flowers are unisexual; calyx absent or, when present, three- to six-lobed; corolla absent; the stamens, 5–14, are subsessile or have long filaments. The fruit is an obovoid to globose drupe with smooth, rugose or tuberculate skin; the styles are typically persistent (Huang 1997).
The taxonomy and classification of Daphniphyllum is best (or most politely) described as a terrible mess, epithets having seemingly been combined almost at random by different ‘authorities’. Here we follow the Kew World Checklist (Govaerts 2002c) and the currently available draft version of the account of Daphniphyllum for Flora of China (Min & Kubitzki 2008), which miraculously seem to agree on some, though not all, names. The biggest problem is that the flowers, usually an important taxonomic character, are minuscule (in most cases less than 2 mm long), while the vegetative characters are all rather similar, but vary with population, habitat and situation – making them extremely uncooperative as subjects for study in the herbarium.
The best known Daphniphyllum in horticulture is D. macropodum, a superlative hardy evergreen widely grown for its clusters of handsome leaves borne on red petioles. This name is upheld by the Kew World Checklist and Flora of China, but the RHS Plant Finder 2007–2008 prefers to call it D. himalaense (a misspelling of the correct himalayense) var. macropodum. All three sources agree, however, that the small Japanese form known as D. humile is merely a variant of D. macropodum. It may be distinct enough to warrant varietal status as D. macropodum var. humile (B. Wynn-Jones, pers. comm. 2007), but in horticulture such plants are probably more usefully known as the Humile Group.
With such a handsome plant as the generic cover model, it is not surprising that plant hunters have begun turning their attention to other species of Daphniphyllum. The result has been numerous recent collections, especially by Bleddyn and Sue Wynn-Jones of Crûg Farm Plants in Gwynedd. The difficulties of identification have inevitably led to several of these being distributed without a confirmed name, so it is particularly important that collectors’ numbers are retained with every specimen. Recent collections have been made in northern Vietnam under the names D. chartaceum K. Rosenthal and D. longiracemosum K. Rosenthal (P. Wharton, pers. comm. 2007), but both these names are treated by Govaerts (2002c) as synonyms of D. himalayense subsp. himalayense. The name D. chartaceum is attached to material in cultivation in the United Kingdom distributed by Spinners Nursery that has a distinctly pendulous lamina (hanging almost at a right angle from the petiole), and a very green appearance to the whole plant. These individuals also have lilac flowers, in a dense panicle (B. Wynn-Jones, pers. comm. 2007). Still unidentified is Daphniphyllum BSWJ 4058 from Lantau Island, Hong Kong. This has been sold as D. glaucescens, but differs from the material collected in Taiwan under that name and now referred to D. pentandrum. It needs a particularly warm site, but has handsome glaucous leaves and fruits (B. Wynn-Jones, pers. comm. 2007).
Daphniphyllum straddles the borderline between shrubs and trees, and new introductions could go either way depending on how they perform under different horticultural circumstances. A sheltered position in sun to semi-shade seems to suit them best, with moist fertile soil. Moisture is particularly important in the growing season (Hogan 2008).
The two shrubs cultivated in gardens belonging to this genus are handsome, robust evergreens, with alternate, stout-textured rhododendronlike leaves. Flowers unisexual, with the sexes on separate plants, of no beauty. The males have no petals, very small sepals, but curious, large, stout anthers. Fruit a roundish or oval drupe. The two following shrubs will grow in any good soil, and are useful for moist, shady positions. Both are lime-tolerant but perhaps not suitable for really chalky soils. Propagated by cuttings made of moderately ripened wood in July, and placed in gentle bottom heat.