Each day, this showy specimen of over 6 metres presses its flowers back and forth against the glass of my office’s window. The tree, one of 130 species within Styrax genus, rises high above a small, shallow lagoon, and heaves its thin woody branches over the railing of the wooden walkway that gives entrance to the garden. Looking up from my desk, I see several visitors observing the mass of bees that hovers hungrily in and out of the tree’s pendulous white flowers, which hang like small cathedral bells from a scaffold of oblong, leathery green leaves. Nearly twenty years ago, when the seed of this Chinese native (collected at Huangshan, Anhui province) arrived at the garden, it was identified as Styrax dasyanthus, and we affixed a small rectangular plate bearing that name to the same walkway over which, now, with the advantage of two decades, the tree hoists its healthy upper half.
Last month, a re-examination of the tree’s inflorescences–undertaken by botanist Beryl Zhuang as part of a garden-wide identification verification project–revealed that this original identification was in fact inaccurate, and that the species was rather (and rather appropriately in this case) Styrax confusus. The re-identification was supported by two distinct findings: firstly, close observation found the structure of the inflorescences to be racemose rather than paniculate (the latter of which is characteristic of dasyanthus) & secondly, examination showed the plant’s fruit to be considerably larger than that of dasyanthus and less pointed at its apex (more obovoid). Though historically other species of Styrax (S. benzoin, for instance) have offered more raw materials to the sensuous curiosities of man (resins used in perfumes, incense, and medicines), Styrax confusus remains a lovely specimen, a fine addition to any garden, and, in this case, a subtle reminder of how the minute mysteries of plants can sometimes mislead even the trained eye of the scientist.