Rhodoleia championii Hook .f.
by Ms. Chew Ming Yee
Rhodoleia championii Hook .f.
by Ms. Chew Ming Yee

Rhodoleia championii is a member of the Hamamelidaceae or Witch Hazel family. It is a small to medium-sized tree to about 15 m tall, with a bushy, compact crown. Its rather leathery leaves with contrasting dark green upper and whitish lower surfaces are quite characteristic. Rhodoleia means “smooth rose” in Greek, because, while its flowers resemble roses, the plant is nevertheless thornless. The species epithet is in honour of J.G. Champion, a British army officer in the mid 1800s, who had a special interest in botany.

Worldwide, Rhodoleia championii occurs from Yunnan and Hong Kong, southward to Java. It represents an intrusion of the temperate element of the Asian continental flora, and in Peninsular Malaysia, it is usually found in the cool lower and upper montane forest. At lower elevations, it is only found on the quartzite ridges of Klang Gates and Kanching in Selangor and at two other localities in Perak and Negeri Sembilan. On Klang Gates, together with the False Ru (Baeckea frutescens), it dominates the upper portions of the ridges and does not seem to suffer from the harsh effects of desiccation associated with exposed quartzite ridges. Although still relatively abundant there, it is completely absent from the lower parts of the ridge trail which have been badly degraded by cultivation activities, burning and erosion and are now almost completely taken over by invasive species such as resam (scrambling ferns of the family Gleicheniaceae), Clidemia hirta (a shrub from South America) and the grass Pennisetum polystachion.

On Klang Gates, it flowers during the cooler months at the end of the year, when its dainty pink petals litter the trail, making them impossible to miss when hiking. While each flower is small, it is arranged tightly to form an attractive cup-shaped head about 3 cm in diameter, subtended by overlapping golden-brown bracts near the base. The nectar secretion at the base of the inflorescence is rather thick, perhaps to prevent loss by dripping, as the inflorescence heads face downward. It is pollinated by sunbirds and spiderhunters, but its inverted habit is uncommon for bird-pollinated flowers, which usually have watery nectar contained at the base of a tube-shaped corolla.

The fruit is a woody, 2-chambered capsule with 4 valves, joined basally into an ovoid head. Although there may be as many as 20 seeds in each chamber, usually only a few are fertile. The seeds are equipped with small wings and are hence wind dispersed. Empty capsules from the previous fruiting season are rather persistent, and are thus helpful in distinguishing this taxon from other look-alike species.

Although rare in cultivation and reportedly difficult to grow, this beautiful plant is a favourite of some specialist horticulturists outside the country.

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