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A tall evergreen tree in the wild, with stout, glabrous branchlets. Leaves leathery, glossy and deep green above, paler beneath, glabrous, obovate or broadly oblanceolate to elliptic, obtuse at the apex, cuneate at the base, 3 to 6 in. long, 15⁄8 to 3 in. wide, pinnately veined; petiole stout, about 1 in. long. Panicles glabrous. Flowers bisexual, about 1⁄2 in. wide. Perianth segments persistent, reflexed in the fruits, which are globose, about 3⁄8 in. wide, blackish purple.
Native of central and southern Japan, southern Korea, Formosa and China; date of first introduction uncertain, but now in cultivation at Wakehurst Place, Sussex, from seeds received from South Korea.
Synonyms: Machilus thunbergii Siebold & Zucc.
Tree 15 to 25 m, columnar at least when young, rounder in outline when mature, with spreading branches, canopy to 15 m across. Bark smooth, green on branches when young, becoming brown with age. Branches in whorls. Leaves 7.5–15 × 3–6 cm, obovate or oblanceolate to elliptic, margins entire, base cuneate, apex acute or acuminate, coriaceous, flushing red or bronze, bright shiny green on upper surface, lower surface dull, waxy and pale whitish green; petiole 2–2.5 cm. Inflorescence formed of terminal panicles emerging in spring from overwintering buds protected by russet-hairy scales, the scales very quickly caducous; peduncles glabrous, elongating with age, red or green; flowers 4–6 mm long, glabrous, yellowish green, fragrant. Fruits in clusters, 10–12 mm, subglobose, subtended by persistent corolla lobes, green becoming purple-black. Flowering in spring, fruits maturing in autumn. Ohwi 1965, Kostermans 1974. Distribution CHINA: coastal provinces from Zhejiang to Hainan; JAPAN: Honshu to Ryukyu Is.; SOUTH KOREA; TAIWAN. Habitat Moist evergreen forest, often with other Lauraceae and Fagaceae, between 0 and at least 730 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 7. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration NT550, NT554. Cross-reference S355.
A brief description of Persea thunbergii was given by Clarke (1988), in which he indicated that it was then in cultivation at Wakehurst Place. It has since become a much more widely grown tree, having entered mainstream American nursery production (often under the name Machilus), and is available also from a few European sources. It is a very attractive species, with the intense red flush of the new shoots giving way to the bright green of the mature leaves. Wild trees are recorded as reaching 25 m, and in the southeastern United States in particular there seems to be no reason why it should not achieve the same stature in cultivation. It seems to flourish in the heat and humidity of the South, where many fine specimens can be seen, but it also does well in the western states. A specimen seen at Quarryhill in 2004 was approximately 8 m in height, forming a column of foliage to the ground. This was planted in 1990, as a seedling grown from a collection made in Honshu in 1987 by Roger Warner and Charles Howick (WH 885). It has suffered occasional frost damage and is also prone, in its exposed situation, to sunburn (W. McNamara, pers. comm. 2004). (This does not seem to be a problem in East Coast gardens.) No really good specimens have been traced in Europe but it does survive in southern England, though growing much more slowly than in the United States. In the Herefordshire garden of Veronica Cross a young plant is growing steadily on heavy clay-loam. In Korea it is notable as a coastal species – some specimens becoming very distorted in consequence of their position – so it may be suited to coastal gardens. The timber is valued, and one particularly intriguing use was noted on a specimen collected in Fujian by H.H. Chung, in 1924, who recorded that ‘wood shavings yield a mucilage much used by ladies to dress their hair’.
Clarke (1988) noted that the very similar P. japonica was in cultivation at Wakehurst Place, but it seems to have been lost from there since then. It differs in having slightly longer, narrower leaves than P. thunbergii. It should be reintroduced.
Machilus japonicus Sieb. & Zucc.
M. thunbergii var. japonicus (Sieb. & Zucc.) Yatabe