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Meliosma comprises 20–25 species in southeast Asia and Central and South America. They are evergreen or occasionally deciduous trees or shrubs with simple or imparipinnate leaves. The branchlets have prominent leaf scars and numerous lenticels, and the buds are pubescent. The inflorescences are terminal (rarely axillary) panicles, with up to four orders of branching and lenticels on the branches. The flowers are very small, numerous, hermaphrodite and sessile or with a short pedicel. The fruit is a small, subglobose or pyriform drupe with a single stone (van Beusekom 1971).
Meliosma is one of those genera that never appears outside specialist nurseries or collectors’ gardens, but its members are valued for their handsome foliage and panicles of scented white flowers. The generic name means ‘honey-scented’ – although in North America the extraordinary, ugly name ‘worm-head tree’ has been adopted or invented for the genus, apparently for the worm-like radicle of the germinating seed (Wharton et al. 2005). Several species were described by Bean (1981a) but most remain very rare in cultivation and many have not been re-collected in recent years. Older specimens, grown from collections by Wilson and others, should be considered as candidates for conservation propagation to ensure that they are not lost from cultivation.
In general Meliosma species are tolerant of a wide range of conditions but they clearly do best in good fertile soil in warm gardens. Wharton et al. (2005) note that some species, especially M. pinnata (Roxb.) Walp. subsp. arnottiana (Walp.) Beusekom var. oldhamii (Maxim.) Beusekom (see Bean and Krüssmann: B727, S339, K302 – mostly under the mercifully shorter name M. oldhamii), are prone to damage from spring frosts through expanding their growth early in the season, and this may be a reason why M. simplicifolia subsp. pungens, described below, has generally been considered tender.
A genus of trees and shrubs, with alternate, simple or pinnate leaves, natives of Eastern Asia and America – the hardy ones all from China and Japan, and deciduous. They produce their flowers, which are small and white, in large terminal panicles. Petals five, the three outer ones concave, orbicular, and larger than the two inner ones. Fruit a drupe containing one seed, which is remarkable for its twisted radicle. The name refers to the honey-like fragrance of the flowers of some of the species.
The genus (with the exception of the section Lorenzanea) is revised by C. F. van Beusekom in Blumea, Vol. 19, pp. 355-529 (1971). This paper was not seen before the revision of Volume II went to press, but a summary of the author's conclusions concerning the meliosmas cultivated in Britain was included in the second printing.