September 8, 2011

Fabulous Clerodendrum trichotomum

I’m becoming more familiar with some of the parks of South East London and it was on one August afternoon, that I decided to take the children to Brockwell Park for a breath of fresh air. On such occasions it has become difficult to engineer bona fide garden visits as my poor children have had to endure perhaps more than their fair share of trips to gardens. However, I did manage to contrive a quick spin round the walled garden and was almost immediately struck by an extraordinarily intense scent apparently coming from a small tree sheltered by one of the sunny walls. Closer investigation revealed an abundance of beautiful white flowers around the size of the flower of Trachelospermum jasminoides. The heady scent was quite Jasmin-like too. With little time for lingering as the children were after an ice cream, I thought I’d look it up when I got home.

Googling commenced for late summer flowering trees but this tree’s identity was proving illusive. Actually, I think I was looking for quite a rare thing anyway and the search was a great way of reminding me of what might fit the bill. I found both Dan Pearson and Carol Klein talking about summer flowering Dogwoods with the beautiful Cornus kousa chinensis sited as a shining example. It certainly wasn’t Aesculus indica or the more shrub-like Aesculus parviflora. It then occurred to me that I should be searching for a large shrub rather than a small tree (the difference between the two probably worthy of a post in its own right at some point) but this didn’t seem to help much either.

Further thought took me back to a recent summer trip to Northern Ireland. I’d visited the arboretum at Castlewellan and experienced the most amazing avenues of summer flowering Eucryphia glutinosa, laced with enormous tree echiums, admittedly way past their flowering time but still architecturally resplendent. This was quite a spectacle to behold though perhaps would have been even more amazing one or two weeks earlier. Further north on the Ards Peninsula is the fabulous Mount Stewart House and Gardens. Just up the road from where we were staying, I’d managed to escape here on several occasions to find lots more Eucryphia but also tremendous examples of Hoheria sexstylosa and Myrtus apiculata, all late summer fragrant white flowering trees – and I’d defy anyone to call them shrubs although they do get called that often enough. However, Ireland is an Atlantic coastal region of Europe enjoying mild winters and cold summers with high rainfall and these are trees not commonly to be found in the South East or more specifically in Brockwell Park.

Then hey presto, I’d found it and the clue was in taking a closer look at the flower with its highly characteristic stamen and style. Clerodendrum trichotomum proved typical of my experience of new things or people in that once discovered, I kept on bumping into it. The arboretum at Hergest Croft delivered and then surprisingly, very close to home I found a wonderful mature specimen in Peckham Rye Park within walking distance of my house which I’ve photographed and will no doubt do so many times more.

It’s a fascinating genus with many species that are mainly native to either tropical or warm temperate regions of the world. Hence I suppose, the sheltered spot in Brockwell Park and the relative frequency in the South East end of this country.

Here are some photos which reveal a little of the character of this tree:

Clerodendrum trichotomum branches

The habit is open and spreading and rather like Cornus controversa, the flowers and then fruit are held aloft of the branch. But it’s looking closely at the flowers that is really fascinating. In terms of reproduction, the flower is protandrous ie male function precedes female function. Not only does one happen after the other, but there is also spatial separation between the two in order to avoid self-pollination.

Clerodendrum trichotomum anthers

Here you see the stamen and anthers erect, presenting pollen to passing insects. The next image attempts to capture the sense of movement of the style which stretches beyond the rim of the corolla.

Clerodendrum trichotomum style

Then the stamen flop over and the style bearing the stigma rises to the centre of the flower.

Clerodendrumn trichotomum stamen and style

The stigma is a little out of focus here I’m afraid, but you still get a sense of this temporal and spatial interplay.

Come November, we are treated to a second and no less glorious display of metallic blue-black berries enclosed by colourful, eye-catching maroon calyces.

Clerodendrum trichotomum berry and calcyes

It makes a great plant for the garden designer to specify as it has so many outstanding features that we are treated to at different moments in time. So, watch out for the increasing prevalence of this small tree/large shrub in London and the South East!