A deciduous, wide-spreading, small tree 10 to 20 ft high in cultivation, but occasionally twice as high in some parts of its native habitat; young shoots soon becoming glabrous. Leaves opposite, broadly oval or ovate; 3 to 6 in. long, 11⁄2 to 3 in. wide; rounded or tapered at the base, the apex with a short, abrupt, slender point; dark green and with scattered down above; pale, rather glaucous and downy beneath; stalk 1⁄4 to 3⁄4 in. long. Flowers insignificant, 1⁄4 in. long, produced in a crowded head 1⁄2 in. across, green tipped with yellow. The real beauty of the plant is in the four bracts that form in autumn and enclose the flower-head during the winter, expanding in May. These bracts are inversely heart-shaped, the apex broad, rounded and notched, white, 11⁄2 to 2 in. long, the whole forming a showy, corolla-like involucre 3 to 4 in. across, commonly called the ‘flower’. Bot. Mag., t. 526.
Native of the eastern United States, where it is generally distributed from Massachusetts southwards; introduced in the early part of the eighteenth century, and cultivated by Thos. Fairchild in his nursery at Hoxton in 1730. There is also evidence of its having been grown by Miller at Chelsea in 1739. Although really a very hardy shrub so far as its capability of supporting extreme cold is concerned, as is shown by its perfect health and robustness in the neighbourhood of Boston, Mass., it has never become generally cultivated in Britain. Through its susceptibility to spring frosts and the indifferent ripening of its wood in autumn, it is rarely seen in good health. It thrives best in south-eastern and eastern England in positions not subject to early autumn and late spring frosts; the damper, less sunny climate of the south-west does not suit it. After a fine summer the leaves change to glorious shades of red and crimson.
cv. ‘Cherokee Chief’. – Bracts described as ‘rich ruby-red’. Raised in the U.S.A. and patented in 1958.
cv. ‘Pendula’. – Branches rather stiffly pendulous. Meehan’s nursery, Philadelphia, U.S.A., before 1880.
f. rubra (West.) Schelle – Bracts in some shade of pink or red. Bot. Mag., t. 8315. Weston published this name (as var. rubra) in 1770, in reference to the wild red-bracted forms, of whose existence he was aware from American literature (or from Miller’s Dictionary). But there is no evidence that this form was cultivated in Britain until after 1889, in which year or thereabouts plants were received in Europe from Parsons of Flushing, New York (Rev. Hort., 1894, p. 500). The variation in colouring shown by cultivated plants suggests, however, that there have been later introductions. Named clones are also available, of which one – ‘Cherokee Chief’ – is mentioned above.
This form needs the same conditions as the type and, given them, flowers freely, though not as a young plant. There are several good specimens in the R.H.S. Garden at Wisley, up to 10 ft high.
cv. ‘White Cloud’. – Bracts creamy white; said to be very floriferous. Raised in the U.S.A. and put into commerce there in 1948.