A deciduous shrub or small tree, with stout, zigzag, spreading branches, very downy when young. Leaves roundish or very broadly obovate, shortly and abruptly pointed, heart-shaped, but unequal-sided at the base, 3 to 5 in. long, three-fourths as broad, widely and shallowly toothed, covered beneath with clustered (stellate) hairs; stalk 1⁄4 in. long, stout and downy. Flowers rich golden yellow, very fragrant, produced in stalkless, crowded clusters from December to February on the twigs of the previous summer’s growth; petals strap-shaped, about 5⁄8 in. long, not wavy as in H. japonica; calyx-lobes rich red-brown, hairy outside, glabrous within. Seeds jet black. Bot. Mag., t. 7884.
A native of western and western central China; described in 1888 from specimens collected by Augustine Henry near Patung, in Hupeh province. Some years earlier – in 1879 – Charles Maries had sent seeds of this species to Messrs Veitch from the district of Kiu-kiang near the Yangtze River, but the one plant raised from these seeds grew unrecognised in the Coombe Wood nursery for almost twenty years, thought to be a superior form of H.japonica. This plant was identified by George Nicholson, the Curator of Kew, around 1898, and only then, it seems, did Messrs Veitch start to propagate it. A few years later, Wilson collected specimens of H. mollis during his Veitch expedition to China, but whether he also sent seeds is not known (neither of the specimens from this expedition in the Kew Herbarium are in ripe fruit). He certainly reintroduced the species in 1907-8 when collecting for the Arnold Arboretum, by means of both seeds and living plants.
H. mollis is undoubtedly the finest of all the species, both as regards flower and foliage; and because of the early date at which it flowers (it is often in full bloom on Christmas Day), it has made a very precious addition to the garden flora. It received a First Class Certificate in 1918 when shown by Messrs Robert Veitch of Exeter and an Award of Garden Merit four years later.
For many years H. mollis was rare in gardens and probably represented mainly or wholly by the Maries clone, which makes a bush of spreading habit. A recent introduction to commerce is H. mollis ‘Goldcrest’, which was raised at Bodnant, probably from seeds collected by Wilson. It makes a large sparsely branched shrub with ascending branches and flowers unusually late, usually from mid-February to mid-March or later. The petals are deep golden yellow, suffused with crimson at the base. A.M. 1961.
The following clones are usually placed under H. mollis but are probably of hybrid origin:
H. ‘Brevipetala’. – Petals rather short, about 3⁄8 in. long, coloured ‘Butter Yellow’. Calyx greenish brown or brownish red on the inside. Put into commerce by Chenault’s nurseries around 1935 but of uncertain origin. A.M. 1960. The leaves agree with those of H. mollis in shape, but on the Kew plants the indumentum of the undersides is unusually thin, and Roy Lancaster has further noted that they are glaucous beneath when young.
H. ‘Pallida’. – Petals soft sulphur-yellow, about 3⁄4 in. long. The flowers are very profusely borne in January and February (or even earlier) and thanks to their pale yet vivid colouring the bush shines out on even the dullest day. ‘Pallida’ was raised in the Garden of the Royal Horticultural Society from seeds which, according to the records, came from a neglected nursery in Holland. Robert de Belder (Journ. R.H.S., Vol. 94 (1969), p. 85) suggests that this nursery may have been Kort’s Kalmthout nursery (see under H. × intermedia), which is in Belgium but near the Dutch frontier. ‘Pallida’ received an Award of Merit as long ago as 1932 but was little known until the early fifties.
The leaves of ‘Pallida’ do not resemble those of H. mollis. They are somewhat lustrous above, thinly clad with stellate hairs beneath, mostly narrower at the base and less cordate, and longer stalked.