Deciduous tree to 20 m. Bark grey, finely roughened or shallowly ridged in maturity. Twigs stout, very pale grey, glabrous; buds globose, with dense light brown pubescence. Leaf pinnate, 15–30 cm long, with (5–)7–13(–15) leaflets each 3–8(–13) × 2–6 cm, the lower ones ovate, the upper ones larger and oblong to obovate, pubescent at least beneath and with tufts in the vein-axils; veins in 7–8 pairs, curving inwards and not reaching the margin, which is sparsely serrated; petiolules with brown pubescence, the terminal one not jointed. Flower-head terminal, erect, opening in early summer above the leaves,15–30 cm long and wide, branched 3 times, with rusty pubescence. Sepals 5, ciliate. Petals pure white, to 2 mm wide. Fruit globose, red, 4–5 mm wide; seed with distinct scattered netlike strips and a prominent midrib. (Guo & Brach 2007; Bean 1981).
Distribution China Anhui, Fujian, N Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, S Shaanxi, Yunnan, Zhejiang Japan South Korea Taiwan
Habitat Forests, 300–1900 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 6
RHS Hardiness Rating H6
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Meliosma oldhamii is named after Richard Oldham, the last plant-hunter to be employed full-time by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who first saw this tree in Korea in 1863 (Bean 1981). It was introduced to cultivation from western Hubei in 1900 by Ernest Wilson during his first Chinese expedition (Bean 1981). There are no known survivors from this collection; the example at Kew, 8 m tall in 2010 (Tree Register 2022), was received from Lushan Botanical Garden in China in 1935 (Bean 1981). As a tree with pinnate leaves (and with leaflets much smaller than in M. veitchiorum) it is most likely to be confused with M. beaniana, but the two species are not closely related and M. oldhamii flowers at the shoot-tips in early summer; the big flower-heads stand above the summer foliage and are pure white with a slight vanilla scent (Hall 2016), but in the English climate not every year produces a good display. The foliage is elegant; the leaflets are an unusually brilliant green and droop from the rachis, rather like those of Tedradium daniellii, and smell faintly of sour milk (Mosquin 2014).
Although a sizeable tree at least in parts of its natural range – Randy Stewart suggests heights as great as 40 m (Stewart 2022) – this is so far a rather diminutive species in cultivation. Historic records of big specimens all seem the result of misidentification: the 19 m Meliosma beaniana at Bodnant in Wales used to be labelled as M. oldhamii, and the record of a 12 m tree at Kildangan in central Ireland in 1989 probably relates to the fine M. veitchiorum which grew there in 2012 (Tree Register 2022). Three trees in the Valley and Savill Gardens at Windsor, the largest 17 m tall in 2021, were received and long labelled as M. oldhamii, but are really Toxicodendron vernicifluum. A genuine mature example in the Valley Gardens (1999–1818) is typical in being no more than 4 m tall (Tree Register 2022), and frequently sets fertile seed through self-fertilisation (John Anderson pers. comm.) It is sometimes assumed that this tree needs a longer warmer growing season than northern Europe provides (Stewart 2022), but an accession in the Jardim Botânico UTAD in northern Portugal is no more arborescent than the English specimens (Jardim Botânico UTAD 2022), while the UK champion itself (12 m tall in 2013) grows in the cool, humid conditions of Holker Hall in coastal Cumbria (Tree Register 2022). Historically, the tree at Kew was damaged by late frosts (Bean 1981), but Randy Stewart (Stewart 2022), apparently citing Barry Yinger’s experience at Brookside Gardens in Maryland, states that established trees can withstand 33°C of winter cold, but probably only where summers are equally continental. A tree planted in 2000 at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum (J.C. Raulston Arboretum 2022) in North Carolina, where summers are long warm, seems in recent online images to be luxuriating and flowering well.
Like many Meliosma, M. oldhamii appears never to be a common tree in the wild (van Beusekom 1971; Bean 1981), and it has not been re-introduced in much variety in recent decades. One at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens was collected on Jeju Island (South Korea) in 1993, and was only 3.7 m tall by 2009 (Tree Register 2022). The species is commercially available in the UK (Royal Horticultural Society 2020), and is also sold by the VanDusen Botanical Garden in British Columbia (VanDusen Botanical Garden 2022). In this same part of the world, it is represented at the David C. Lam Asian Garden of the University of British Columbia by a characteristically low but floriferous tree, growing in full sun by the carpark (Wikipedia 2015), and it is also cultivated at the Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle.
Plants of the World Online (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 2022) recognises var. hachijoensis (Nakai) Jôtani & H. Ohbi, from Japan’s Izu Islands, while the Flora of China (Flora of China 2022) recognises var. glandulifera Cufodontis, from Anhui, Guangxi, Hunan and Jiangxi, whose foliage carries sparse glandular hairs.