Scientific Name: Polyspora longicarpa, formerly Gordonia longicarpa
Family: Theaceae, the tea family
Plant Type: Tree/Shrub
Environment: FPrefers moist, acidic soil, needs year-round watering, and cannot tolerate drought conditions.
Uses: Several species of Polyspora are grown as ornamental plants for their flowers, produced in winter when few other trees are in bloom. They are, however, difficult to grow compared to the similar but generally smaller-growing camellias.
Other: FBG also grows Polyspora macrocarpa and P. axillaris.
Dr. Bruce Bartholomew, Senior Research Scientist at the Botany Department at the California Academy of Sciences, collected Polyspora longicarpa during a botanical expedition to Yunnan, China. Plants grown from seed he collected were planted in bed 7D in 1998. Today, one of those seeds has grown to a slender, 15-foot tree bursting with fragrant, white, camellia-like blossoms and long tapering leaves - truly a gorgeous sight! Walking along the south path from the main entrance and a short way around the central lawn, Polyspora is easily visible. It thrives growing under the protection of bigger trees, such as the Magnolia campbellii above it. Polyspora blooms in the Garden from November to March.
Polyspora (many seeds) longicarpa (long fruit) is in the camellia family, the Theaceae, and is a cousin of this more common relative. It is one of six species of Polyspora found in China. The blooms are large and solitary, with typically five crinkly, waxy petals. Its tough evergreen leaves are longer and are "entire," or smooth-edged, with a dominant midrib and pointed tip. Another closely-related species, Gordonia lasianthus, affectionately called loblolly bay by southerners, grows in the swampy pinelands of the southeastern United States.
Its close similarity to the species in Asia is fascinating. How can loblolly bay be separated by the Pacific Ocean from its relatives in Asia? Botanists call this the theory of disjunction. When the world was younger the continents were joined, forming the supercontinent Pangaea. This large landmass slowly broke apart, the fragments forming our modern-day continents and carrying their plants, animals, and all other lifeforms along with them. As humans have migrated around the globe, plants, in their own way, have been doing the same for much longer. Continents slowly shift and move, and seeds fly by air, float by water, or hitchhike on or in animals away from their parents to potentially inhabit new ground. In this way, successive generations of plants can travel, surviving the rising and falling of mountains, waxing and waning of resources, and changing climate.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Kathy McNeil. Photos by Joanne Taylor, Mona Bourell and Kathryn Rummel