And here it is, flowering just a few hundred miles away in the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens! They’ve waited some 30 years to see it; I travelled some 6,000 miles to find it.

And if you want to know more about that, you’ll have to go all the way back to the beginning of this Blog!

I’m talking of course about Emmenopterys henryi, a tree native to China which is now rare in the wild. Although in arboretums and collections across the world, back in 2009 it had only been recorded as flowering outside China less than a dozen times, and only a couple of times in England. How things have changed this year!

After one of the wettest summers on record in England, there are no fewer than four recorded flowerings of E henryi – the one at Cambridge, two in Sussex at Borde Hill  Garden (amazingly for the second year running) and one on the Isle of Wight at Ventnor Botanic Garden.

Little is know about what prompts this tree to flower, but after such a spectacularly “successful” year there’s no doubt that scientists will be looking into it.

As soon as I hear it’s in flower I book some cheap overnight accommodation through “airbnb” (a brilliant site for alternative home-stays) and shoot straight up to Cambridge. I’m greeted by the Director and led straight away to see this spectacle.

The Chinese tree in Flower

It’s a well-formed, very healthy tree, some 30ft high with dark green glossy leaves. The sprays of flowers start at the top, spreading diagonally downwards and stop about a third of the way from the lower branches. Extending from each spray of flowers is a similarly coloured “leaf” on a long stalk which flutters with the slightest breeze.

Flowers with bracts

Flowers with bracts

I certainly can’t reach them and am wondering just how close I can get when they happily climb a ladder, ask me which bit I want, cut off a sizeable chunk of flowering material and hand it to me.

Reaching some of the lower flowers

Reaching some of the lower flowers

I’m astounded – I seriously had visions of sitting on a camping stool underneath the tree trying to do field studies in the wind and rain, with fingerless gloves and a thermos by my side!

Now, holding these small star-shaped flowers in my hand for the first time seeing how fragile they are, breathing in their Gardenia scent, I know this is an extraordinary moment.  And I let it linger.

Things get even better when they offer me a room in their offices at The Lodge in which to paint.

Then things take an unexpected turn – all my amateur enthusiasm comes crashing down into a crisis of confidence as I’m introduced to the professional Botanical Illustrator ensconced at The Lodge. No prizes for guessing what she’s painting.

She’s charming and helpful and has 17 years’ professional experience painting for Kew. And she’s half-way through an exquisite drawing of E henryi for Curtis’s Botanical Magazine – the quarterly publication of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

I find it hard to even sharpen my pencil after that, but concentrate on doing some studies so that when the flowers have died I’ll still be able to understand their form from different angles. I realise it also has a very complex branching structure and a specific pattern as to where the wonderful elongated bracts occur. There’s a lot of rubbing out.

I manage some colour referencing, then, as my departure time approaches, panic really sets in. But I’ve brought a nice big plastic box “just in case” and wrap each cut stem with wet kitchen paper and cling film to keep it fresh – and place them all gently into the box, which fits perfectly into my backpack.

The material’s lasted well in my fridge for several weeks. I raised the temperature as I feared the flowers would go brown and had to throw away milk on several occasions – oh, the hazards of being an artist!

They put an article in the local paper – don’t know how long this link will work, but if you catch it quick, you might just be able to see it:

If you want to see what Cambridge or Borde Hill Gardens have to say about the tree, check out:

Cambridge University Botanic Gardens:

Dr Upson preparing a herbarium specimen

Borde Hill Garden: