Euscaphis japonica

sweetheart tree

At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), plants are evaluated for their beauty and adaptability to southeastern landscapes with the goal of making new and excellent landscape plants available to nursery and horticultural professionals, thereby moving these plants out into southern gardens. To this end, hundreds of new plants are acquired each year form sources around the world to add to the collections for evaluation in the arboretum's gardens. New plants can come from seed exchanges, nurseries, other arboreta and botanic gardens, and perhaps most excitingly, from plant collection expeditions to other parts of the world. Plant collection expeditions have long been a traditional occupation of botanists and horticulturists affiliated with arboreta and botanic gardens with such illustrious names as Ernest H. Wilson of the Arnold Arboretum and Frank Meyer of the USDA making these expeditions world famous events of the early 1900's. It is less well known that modern collection expeditions are still searching for plants of promise in unexplored areas of the world or those facing the dangers of forest destruction from over-development. Arboreta around the country send botanists on expeditions to China, Japan, Korea, South America, Australia and New Zealand (among other nations) and The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) is no exception.

In 1985, thanks to the generous support of the NC Association of Nurserymen, the NC Landscape Contractor's Association and NC chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, and the NCSU Department of Horticultural Science, the arboretum's director, Dr. J.C. Raulston, was part of the US National Arboretum collection expedition team that traveled to Korea. One of the reasons why Korea was chosen was because of the similarities in climate between many areas of Korea and the southeastern US. These climatic similarities translate into excellent potential for finding new plants that could perform well here in the hot, wet southeast. In fact, this has proven to be the case. Cuttings and seed of hundreds of exciting plants came back with JC from that expedition and many excellent and interesting plants have matured from those seed and cuttings that are just now proving their exciting mettle for production in the trade. Over the next several years, some of these plants will become available to NC gardeners - and they are plants well worth waiting and watching for, with exceptional appearance and adaptability. One of the most unusual and delightful of the plants to come back from the 1985 Korean expedition is a plant heretofore so little known in the US that it has no common name in English. That plant is Euscaphis japonica (sometimes referred to by its fans with the name Don Shadow once christened it: "Korean Sweetheart Tree").

Euscaphis is a small, evergreen tree with thick, glossy emerald foliage that will likely reach 20 feet with age with a spread of about 10-15 feet (remember this is a new plant!). The medium, oval leaves are arranged in informal ranks which gives the tree a neat, graceful appearance. The bark on the best of the seedlings is a dramatic violet-chocolate, veined with bright white stripes, and is unbelievably striking, especially in winter. Flowers in early summer are small, yellowish, borne in branched clusters, and essentially unremarkable - but, oh my (!) the fruit they develop into is another matter entirely. In late summer, large clusters of intense cherry-red, leathery, heart-like sacks develop. As the season begins to turn toward fall, these romantic sacks split open to reveal their hearts full of shiny, jet black beads, creating one of the showiest fruit displays any gardener could wish for. Each tree appears bedecked with bouquets of brilliant valentines that positively glow against the rich green foliage - an indescribably surprising and wonderful effect in the late summer landscape.

Euscaphis has proven itself to be remarkably tough, growing and thriving through droughts and wet periods in some of the worst clay soils the Piedmont can dish up. Exact cold hardiness is as yet unknown but it will likely perform well throughout the southeast, except in the most extreme areas of the mountains where cold may result in damage. Full sun will give best flowering and fruiting. One reason why this plant is not yet available has been the challenge of propagation with seed requiring multiple, varied treatment before it will successfully germinate. Now that these techniques have been worked out, Euscaphis can be propagated by nursery professionals and begin to work its way through the trade to gardeners and landscapers (and in fact, has been chosen as one of the plants for the joint plant release program of The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) and the NC Association of Nurserymen). Building up numbers for sale will take some time, but look for Euscaphis to begin becoming available in the next 2 years.

In the meantime, Euscaphis japonica is a wonderful reason to treat yourself to a trip to The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) where this delightful tree wears its hearts on its leaves for all to see in the Almanac garden and in the West Arboretum.