Monday, June 25, 2012

Stewartia psuedocamellia - A Tree Love Affair

Everyone has the one special spot on their property that they always pass by, look at while sitting on the terrace or deck, or see when they open the front door.  The spot that demands something special, something that is interesting all year.  Is it a piece of statuary or art?  Is it a water feature?  Or maybe you just want the perfect ornamental tree that is interesting throughout the year.

There are lots of wonderful ornamentals that don't get too large and have many wonderful aspects to them.  I like to look at five major factors when helping friends and clients appreciate ornamental trees:  Habit, flower, bark, fall color and winter interest.  Very few trees do well in all of these categories, and by far my favorite, that excels in every category, is Stewartia psuedocamellia.  I am not alone in my assessment, but let me tell you why I think it is such an exceptional tree.

This tree is a native of Japan and can grow up to 40', but can easily be kept to 15-20' in the garden.  It can tolerate full sun but does best in a spot that gets sun and is spared from constant summer sun.  Like the Rhododendron and Azalea, it does like an acid soil.  Even in our New England gardens, it will benefit from some added acidity to improve its blooming and fall color.

I have also found that it does not like to be stressed by lack of moisture.  If the soil drains well, it will truly benefit from several good deep soakings during the summer to ensure moisture throughout the root zone.  The reward for proper care is an elegant tree of somewhat open habit with layered branches. It is slow growing so you don't have to worry about it getting out of control, and because of its branching, pruning to shape and direct growth is very easy.

These trees can be placed out in the open, in a bed by the front door or on the edge of a terrace where it can be appreciated.  Even being visible from the kitchen or living room will provide interest year round.  Don't bury in the back or mix with other trees because you will lose its form and unique characteristics.

The flower is a white flower with five petals, crinkled on the edges, that opens to reveal a beautiful yellow center.  The species name is pseudocamellia as the flowers are very similar to the single form of a Camellia flower.   It starts flowering in the early summer and can last for well over a month.  Unlike the Dogwoods that flower all at once in a big display, the Stewartia flowers more gradually with bunches of flowers always on display.  An interesting seed head is left after blooming that then ripens to brown and open later in the fall.

This past week I helped a friend who needed to replace a dead tree in front of their house by the driveway.  In between the tree location and the house is a walkway that goes down a slope to a lawn and the a local pond.  This prominent location needed something special that they could control and shape over the years, but most importantly would provide interest all year long.  With some dappled shade during the day this is a perfect location for a tree of this quality.  For the five months out of the year the tree does not have leaves, you look for a tree whose branching is pleasing and has an interesting coloration or texture in the bark.  

The Stewartia bark, even on relatively young trees has a base color of light to cinnamon brown with a patchwork of beige and green that forms a camouflage appearance. This image of my young tree isn't the greatest, click on the Stewartia link at the top for some better images.   It is quite stunning and extends out to the branches as well. The branching tends to be flat to slightly upright carries next season's leaf buds and it happens to catch snow easily and looks very elegant in the winter.

If that's not enough, wait until fall when the leaves start changing.  Every year is different, but they start to shift to a yellow color and the variably turn to oranges and reds.  One of the great fall color displays in terms of intensity and variation.  Different parts of the tree can be different colors.  A wonderful end to the year.

All of these factors in combination make Stewartia the finest ornamental available in our growing zone.  Most nurseries won't bother with a plant like this, and when you do find good plants, they will cost up to twice that of other ornamentals.  The reason for this are the challenges in propagating and growing.  It takes a lot of time to grow good specimens.

There are many other excellent ornamentals, even if they are a small step down from the Stewartia, that may not flower, have great fall color or interesting bark.  I love them all, but if I have to choose just one, it is the Stewartia.

Other quality ornamental trees include the following: Styrax japonica, Halesia carolina, Acer griseum, Magnolia sp., Oxydendrum arboreum, Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium', Cornus kousa and hybrids and any of the hundreds of Weeping Acer palmatum.

Before purchasing ornamentals like these trees, do your research and find an excellent nursery that deals with these plants and sources them from good growers.  These are expensive propositions but well worth the expense.


  1. our stewartia's leaf edges are burnt dark brown and the flowers fall off as soon as they open. It's planted close to a high winter salt use area. Could this be the problem or something else?

    1. Yes, the salt could very much contribute to the problem. Stewartias are also prone to burning like that if they are in too much sun and don't get enough water. If sun and heat aren't an issue then the road salt is the main suspect.

      I would transplant to a more protected area and make sure it has lots of organic material in the soil. Protect from drying hot afternoon sun. If you do transplant, take a very large root ball and plant it in a nice compost and soil mix. Do not fertilize for a year as it will just burn it even more.

  2. Hi there,

    Out Stewartia (just planted this spring) has multiple white buds that are just about to bloom but fall off the tree before they open. Any idea what the issue could be? It's in partial shade mostly sun in rather sandy soil. Otherwise appears very healthy.

    1. Partial shade is good but the sandy soil is not good. Stewart's need lots of organic material in the soil to feed the tree and to hold moisture as they can be a little thirsty. If the edges of the leaves are turning brown, that just reinforces the point. Since it was just planted, dig out some of the soil around the tree(go down a foot or so) and add soil back 50/50 with some good quality compost (not straight manure). I wouldn't be too worried about the flowers as plants can do this when they are planted/transplanted and have not assimilated.

  3. The first year my Stewartia had beautiful fall color. Last year the edges of the leaves turned a little brown and it never really colored for the fall. Is there anything I can do this year to encourage the beautiful fall color it had when I first bought it?

    1. If you can manage the day and night temperatures and regulate the rain, then yes. Temperature and moisture during season and in fall can impact color and it can be wildly effected in younger, less established trees. The brown edges on the leaves tell me it was stressed by not enough water. They don't very sunny and hot locations and need steady moisture in a a soil with ample organic matter.