Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Covert surveillance reveals China Doll


Over summer my wife Lynda and I would sit in the small courtyard at the back of our home and soak up the evening warmth, making up for two years of deprivation in London (we experienced particularly miserable summers there) and winding down from our days of teaching and botanising, respectively.

We mourned the removal of a jacaranda from the property behind us (revealing far more of the neighbouring flats that we wished to see) and surveyed the landscape around us for more optimistic plant futures. One of these was a 10 metre high tree in our next door neighbour's back yard. It had dramatically elongated white flowers, a bit like a Trumpet Flower (Brugmansia) or Gardenia thunbergia if you know that one.

The flowers were just too far away to see the floral detail but it looked like the leaves of the tree were finely branched - pinnate. Over the weeks the flowers came and went, but more kept coming, and eventually long narrow seed pods were extruded from the spent blooms.


Armed with my telephoto lens I took these pictures one evening late in the season (mid-February) but as luck would have it there were no open flowers. I could see, and photograph, some buds so there were more to come. We guessed they might open at night given they were big and white, more suited to moths (maybe the famous hawk moths with their long 'tongues'?) and bats, rather than daytime fauna, and sure enough by the next morning there were some new flowers to photograph.


They were drooped and ragged by mid-afternoon of what turned out to be a 35 degree Celsius day but with more buds for tomorrow. It seemed to flower for many weeks.

Guessing at the family Bignoniaceae based on the pod I eventually tracked the species down to Radermachera sinica, a species that we have planted frequently in our southern China collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens (as well as near the lakeside toilets along from what is called the Taxodium Lawn). It grows naturally in southern and eastern Asia.

In Zambesia (the source of the on-line key I used to identify the genus and species) the China Doll Plant, as it is also known, is widely planted for its 'showy flowers'. Worldwide this species is perhaps better known as an indoor foliage plant, trading under the name of China Doll. In Melbourne it will grow outdoors in a sheltered spot, like my neighbour's backyard. (You may also find a compact cultivar of a related species from Yunnan, in southern China, called 'Summerscent', which has been hailed as a rival to Murraya.)

There are 17 accepted species of Radermachera, a genus named after Jacob C.M. Radermacher, an 18th century Dutchman who lived in Java. We have two species in the Royal Botanic Gardens, one specimen of Radermachera gigantea (with mauve flowers) in the fern gully and, as I know now, a southern China collection riddled with Radermachera sinica (with its white to soft yellow flowers).


So that's what it looked like in mid-February. Now, in mid-June, there only twisted seed pods, mostly open and with seeds dispersed. Here is a close up taken last weekend, on a day reminiscent of a summer's day in London. It's the last of my covert photography across the fence ... unless of course I spy something else botanically interesting.


8 comments:

Elizabeth Molnar said...

An opportunity to form neighbourly connexion?

Tim Entwisle said...

Yes true. Should be the perfect opportunity to strengthen our neighbourly relationship, assuming my photography over the fence hasn't already ruined that... Tim

Laurie Krauss said...

I also have a China Doll but it hasn't flowered yet.

Tim Entwisle said...

Worth the wait Laurie!

Anonymous said...

As a self employed horticulturist i came across a mature specimen of a china doll a few years ago. Was probably 15 to 20 years old and was around 6mts high. Filled in a spot amongest a carport and verandah and was beautiful. Flowered sporadically during summmer. Had night scented jessamine, gardenias and a stephanotis on some trellis. There was also a Gardenia thunbergia near it!!! (hard to obtain). I worked at that garden for 5 or so years and the people who owned it valued all the plants there. ....
Then it got sold to some sth africans,and the lady knew everything??? Cut out the china doll and put a horrible pond in that had to have a huge steel mesh cover on it so her grandchildren didn't fall in. Was a disaster, rest of the plants suffered and i no longer work there. Sad but true

Tim Entwisle said...

That's wonderful, then depressing news. Gardenia thunbergia is also a lovely plant! Thanks...

Benedict Lyte said...

I have friends in Auckland, who aren't great gardeners but love this plant. They cut it back hard every few years and it gets away beautifully, covered in blooms. I haven't knowingly come across it in Sydney yet.

Tim Entwisle said...

Thanks Benedict. It seems to flower forever, and looks great even in leaf. So I can understand the love!
Tim