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Tree to 8 m. Leaves evergreen, palmate; leaflets four to seven, papery to leathery, (8–)30–35 × 3–12 cm, elliptic to oblong or lanceolate, upper surface dark green, glabrous, lower surface greyish white or yellowish brown, tomentose, 7–13 pairs of secondary veins on each side of the midrib, margins entire to irregularly dentate (usually pinnately lobed in young plants), apex abruptly acute to acuminate; petiole (10–)15–60 cm long, green. Inflorescences terminal, paniculate, primary axis to 25–80 cm long, greyish white-tomentose; composed of numerous spikes, each to 30 cm long. Flowers small, sessile; calyx five-toothed, tomentose. Drupe globose, 0.3–0.5 cm diameter, with a persistent style. Flowering October to November, fruiting January (China). Xiang & Lowry 2006. Distribution CHINA: Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Yunnan; VIETNAM. Habitat Evergreen broadleaved forest, between 600 and 3000 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 9. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration NT775, NT778.
Schefflera delavayi is one of the species first introduced by Edward Needham from his travels in China, and at his home and in other Cornish gardens it has made substantial, broad, bushy trees (up to 4 m tall by 8 m wide at Tregrehan, for example: Johnson 2007). Later introductions, often from commercial seed collections (S. Hogan, pers. comm. 2008), have spread it more widely in commerce on both sides of the Atlantic, and it looks set to become an important component of milder gardens. With its dark green foliage and long white inflorescences it is quite distinctive. In coastal Washington it grows well but has a tendency to produce an autumn flush of leaves that often gets frosted (D. Hinkley, pers. comm. 2008). In Scotland, a species that may be S. delavayi has done very well and is hardy even in inland Stirlingshire (Hutchinson 2005).
In international trade S. delavayi has regrettably become confused with another species that has huge, deeply pinnatisect mature leaves – a quite magnificent plant, but not S. delavayi, in which only juvenile leaves show any sign of deep lobing. Unfortunately this plant appears with some frequency in internet searches for Schefflera delavayi (for example, Nature Products 2000–2008). Whatever it is, it would be worth cultivating!
Neither should S. delavayi be confused with Metapanax delavayi (Franch.) J. Wen & Frodin, a species that has wandered between a diversity of genera – Panax, Nothopanax, Acanthopanax, Pseudopanax, Macropanax – before coming finally (one hopes) to rest in the recently described Metapanax (not covered by Flora of China). Metapanax delavayi is a very attractive bushy shrub or small tree with dark green leaves composed of three to five forward-pointing leaflets, resembling a very finely textured Schefflera. In Washington it has proven absolutely hardy since 1996, when Dan Hinkley collected it above Lijiang in Yunnan; he regards it as ‘one of the best evergreen shrubs to come out of China in a long time’ (D. Hinkley, pers. comm. 2008). It is fully hardy in the Pacific Northwest and also in the southeastern United States, from North Carolina southwards (Wharton et al. 2005). The other species in this genus, M. davidii (Franch.) J. Wen & Frodin, is also in cultivation (Heronswood Nursery catalogues 2004, 2005), and in the United States performs in much the same way as M. delavayi, forming a rounded bush, although it is potentially a small tree. Its leaves are simple or have three leaflets.