Evergreen shrub or tree to 20 m. Bark smooth, grey. Twigs often with reddish pubescence when young. Leaves simple, usually in terminal clusters, obovate to oblong, 15–50 × 4–18 cm, glabrous above and with tufts under the veins; veins in 15–20 pairs, curving inwards, not reaching the margin; margin entire or toothed; petiole 1–5 cm, broadly grooved. Flower-head terminal (very rarely axillary), erect, (4–)10–50(–60) cm long, branched 3, rarely 4 times, sparsely pubescent to densely tomentose, opening very early in the year. Sepals (4–)5. Petals white or yellowish, ciliate. Fruit globose, 3–6 mm wide, often ripening in spring; set with sparse, netlike strips and with a distinct midrib. (Grimshaw & Bayton 2009; Guo & Brach 2007).
Distribution Bangladesh In the Himalaya Bhutan Myanmar Cambodia China In the far south-west of the country India Indonesia Laos Malaysia Nepal Pakistan In the Himalaya Sri Lanka Thailand Vietnam
Habitat Warm, wet evergreen forests.
USDA Hardiness Zone 9
RHS Hardiness Rating H3
Conservation status Not evaluated (NE)
Meliosma simplicifolia, which was originally described from India by William Roxburgh in 1820 (as Millingtonia simplicifolia), was one of the taxa which T.H. van Beusekom chose as a portmanteaux within which to place various other sorts that had originally been described as separate species. van Beusekom’s work has largely been unravelled by modern taxonomists, but Plants of the World Online (Plants of the World Online 2022), whose treatment of the genus is followed throughout this account for the sake of consistency, continues to recognise two members from van Beusekom’s seven as subspecies of M. simplicifolia (along with subsp. simplicifolia itself whose distribution extends across subtropical south Asia, from Pakistan to Java.) Subsp. fruticosa (M. fruticosa Blume) is widespread in Indochina, while subsp. pungens (M. pungens Wall. ex Wight & Arn.) occurs in southern India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and northern Sumatra.
Subsp. pungens is the only member of this group known to be grown in the west; in fact it is the only evergreen Meliosma with a long if little-documented history of cultivation. These subtropical species tend to look very similar to each other and are less showy in flower than the deciduous taxa; M. simplicifolia subsp. pungens has entire leaves sometimes with a few distant, sharp teeth towards the leaf-tip (van Beusekom 1971). The confused nomenclatural history makes it difficult to determine this taxon’s status in the wild, but it seems to be widespread.
Two trees in two great early 20th century Cornish gardens, Caerhays Castle and Trewithen, have long been grown as Meliosma simplicifolia subsp. pungens, and presumably derive from the same undocumented introduction; they represent one of very few plants with such a southerly and tropical distribution to have been successfully grown so far north. Both trees have grown into multi-stemmed but quite shapely and narrow spires, and carry their leaves at an elegant and consistent angle, rather like the foliage of Aucuba japonica. Both occupy very sheltered locations; the Trewithen tree was 11 m tall in 2014 (Tree Register 2022), and the Caerhays example had died back to about 7 m by this time. (It too was 11 m in 1984, unless this measurement referred to a second, lost example; its girth was greater then than in 2006, but this could be explained by the loss of a largest stem in the interim. Certainly, their slow growth indicates that these two are quite old and potentially long-lived trees.) The Caerhays plant flowered for the first time in living memory in June 2019 (Williams 2019), and by 2021 was looking happier than it had for many years (Williams 2021). A younger example at Caerhays has recently died (Williams 2019), but a scion from the old Caerhays tree planted at Tregrehan in the same county had grown slowly to 3 m by 2014 (Tree Register 2022). This is presumably also the origin of another Cornish plant, at the Pinetum Gardens (Pine Lodge), which was 4.5 m tall by 2014 (Tree Register 2022), but an attempt to grow this taxon in the warmer, drier conditions of the garden of Buckingham Palace in central London has failed (M. Lane pers. comm.).
The plant described in New Trees (Grimshaw & Bayton 2009) under M. simplicifolia (sensu Beusekom), which was received at Tregrehan from the Qingpu Paradise Horticutural Company (QPH 97–167) in 1997 as M. rigida Sieb. & Zucc., is an unrelated and deciduous plant with a flaking bark, and seems closest to M. dilleniifolia q.v. (T. Hudson pers. comm.).