Deciduous small tree or shrub, to 10 m tall. Bark grey, reddish and yellow, smooth but flaking in shallow scales. Twigs with short erect hairs. Leaves simple, 6–11 × 3–7 cm, tapering often very narrowly to the base from halfway, upper blade rounded to subtruncate, with a short apex; shining dark green above; variably pubescent with tufts under the vein axils; veins in 8–15 pairs, not markedly parallel and usually forking; upper margin undulate-serrate, the teeth hooked and mucronate; petiole 5–15 mm, with erect brownish hairs. Flower-head terminal, borne in summer, 9–30 cm high, branching 4 times, with rusty pubescence. Sepals 5. Petals white, to c. 1 mm wide. Fruit globose, 5–6 mm wide. (Guo & Brach 2007; Bean 1981).
Distribution China Henan, W Hubei, S Jiangsu, Sichuan, Xizang, N Zhejiang
Habitat Woodlands and by streams, 100–1200 m asl.
USDA Hardiness Zone 7
RHS Hardiness Rating H5
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Despite being one of the most distinctive and ornamental members of the genus, Meliosma parviflora remains little known – particularly so in the UK and Ireland which have tended to become centres for the group’s cultivation. The most striking asset is the tight grey bark which flakes in shallow scales to reveal patches of cream and cinnamon, very like that of Cornus kousa. The shiny rich green leaves, with their broadly rounded upper ends and tapering bases and slightly frilly serration, recall those of the thorn Crataegus × persimilis ‘Prunifolia’ (but are larger). Lecomte’s botanical name refers to the particularly small size of the individual flowers and not to the panicle itself which, as in all the genus’ deciduous members, is broad and showy. In the English climate at least, this tends to be the last Meliosma to bloom, in August.
The species was first seen by Ernest Wilson in 1903 but, unusually, he failed to collect it and Meliosma parviflora seems not to have been introduced to the west until 1936, when the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew received seed from Nanjing (Bean 1981). There used to be two trees at Kew; W.J. Bean himself, who must have known them well and was usually such a perceptive writer, comments that one never flowered and that the other did so sparingly, but makes no mention of the beautiful bark, suggesting this feature may not be apparent on young plants. Scions were sent out from Kew in the mid 20th century under the mangled name ‘M. parvifolia’, and this is presumably the origin of today’s UK champion, an 8 m tree with a trunk 26 cm thick at 50 cm in 2013 (Tree Register 2022) which is one of the many treasures of Roath Park, a public garden in Cardiff. The single other established specimen currently known in Britain is a smaller one in the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens; this flowered particularly well during the long hot summer of 2018 (Edwards & Marshall 2019), helping to suggest that here is a tree which prefers plenty of warmth during the growing season. It certainly flourishes at Nantes in north-west France (Papin 2022), where Jean-Louis Papin aptly compares the bark to that of Parrotia persica. The only recent reintroduction of the species may have been BSWJ 4808, offered by Crûg Farm in the early years of the 21st century (Royal Horticultural Society 2006).
In the eastern United States, a 5 m example at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum in North Carolina (J.C. Raulston Arboretum 2022) has done a little to raise the species’ profile; this potentially very useful ornamental can be propagated by seed or softwood cuttings taken from late May to July (Weathington 2011). Unfortunately, an even finer specimen in Brookside Gardens, Maryland, appears to have been grown by Barry Yinger as M. cuneifolia, under which name it is photographed by Randy Stewart in his excellent Future Plants blog (Stewart 2022).
In the wild this seems to be a distinct and not very variable species (van Beusekom 1971). Despite its relatively small stature, it produces a hard and heavy timber which is used for cart axles (Guo & Brach 2007). The characterful flaking bark is shared by one as yet unidentified deciduous Meliosma in cultivation at Tregrehan in Cornwall (T. Hudson pers. comm.), which was received in 1997 from the Chinese Qingpu Paradise Horticultural Company as M. rigida, an evergreen species that has very different foliage.