hot plant: stewartia, an ideal small tree

stewartia-bloomsI LIKE PLANTS THAT EARN THEIR KEEP. By that I mean they do more than a week or two of showing off; they look good in more than a single moment, or season. The small-ish to medium trees in the genus Stewartia are a good bet if that’s the kind of multi-season interest you are looking for. Sound good?

The Latin specific epithet, or species name, of the Stewartia I grow is pseudocamellia, which roughly means it disguises itself as a camellia when in bloom (a nod to the look of its lovely and plentiful white June-into-July flowers, and the fact they are very distant relatives in the Tea Family).

But this Stewartia, from Japan, which gets to maybe 25 feet or so in a Northeast garden setting and is happy in part shade or sun, isn’t content to offer up just nice flowers for the privilege of living with you. It gives you peeling, lovely bark all season long (below), and hot fall color, too, as the leaves eventually change. I should warn that it grows slowly, so this is an investment piece, not instant success.

stewartia-trunkI like my stewartias to be multi-stem and breaking low from the base, instead of single-trunk, but such aesthetic considerations are up to you. A bigger cousin is S. monadelpha, also from Japan; S. koreana (from where it sounds like it’s from) is another showy choice. What I insist is that you at least agree to look at Stewartia next time you’re in a good woody plant nursery and think of this: What other garden-scale tree gives summer flowers (preceded by showy marble-size buds, bottom photo, by the way, in my pseudocamellia); hot fall foliage, plus winter interest in the form of textural bark and lovely structure?

Guess after reading this you already know the answer to today’s quiz, huh?

stewartia-buds2

200 comments
July 1, 2008

comments

  1. Elizabeth says

    We want to plant a small tree to fill a 20′ tall space between two windows a little over 6′ apart. It will be plante about 6′ in front of the house. A local nursery ( southern Maine) has a beautiful, 5′ stewartia. Will this tree work, or will it grow too large? Thanks for any advice you might give.

    • says

      Hi, Elizabeth. The mature tree can be 20-plus feet high AND wide, so seems far too big for that tight a spot. Sounds like you need something columnar/fastigiate in habit, that won’t cover the windows, no?

  2. Elizabeth says

    Will the tree adjust to the space? It doesn’t matter too much if the garage windows are covered.
    Can you suggest something else that might work better? We’re zone 5; them space gets at least six hours of sun a day.
    Thank you.

  3. laney says

    Dear Margaret,
    In Sept. of 2008 we planted a Japanese Stewartia on the East side of our Detroit home. We bought it from a Nursery in Ohio because we couldn’t find it local. During transporting the leader was cracked. It is a single leader tree. We taped it and the following Spring another leader emerged. The original leader is still growing but at 25% of the rate of the new leader, which has now divided into two branches. This is now around 12 -14 foot tall. Question: How do I prune this tree? It has many branches at the bottom that are grazing the ground. Shall I cut them off? Do I prune the new leader off at the base where it came from the other 1st leader? I picked it out of a group knowing nothing of seeking “multi-stem” speciman. She is blooming now and well adjusted. Just looks top heavy with that leader and bushy up to 3 foot off the ground. Thanks, Laney

    • says

      Hi, Laney. Hard for me to tell without seeing it — at least in a photo, maybe. You can email me at awaytogarden at gmail of you want. Even then, always hard other than in person, but let’s have a look.

  4. Bobbi Moyer says

    Dear Margaret,

    I planted a Stewartia last Spring (2011) and at the time of planting, it was quite tall with very little growth at the top, but I thought it would fill in more this Spring. In reading about them, I’m not sure if this tree would be considered single stem or multiy stem, because at the bottom of the tree it is muti-stem but this one limb (I guess you would call it the leader) goes above and beyond the others by about 3′. My question is, would it hurt the appearance if I cut that 3′ section down to where the other branches and limbs are? As far as I’m concerned, it looks out of place, but I don’t want to make it look worse as it continues to grow. That section did not have much new growth on it this Spring (in fact, it looks the same as it did all of last year). The leaf color is a nice deep green and it had an adequate amount of flowers this year, and had some new growth, but I’m just not liking how it looks at the top of the tree. What do you suggest? My local nurseryman told me that they are very difficult to transplant and very hard to acquire, so I took it because of all the positive things I’ve read about them. But, it’s not like I had a choice in trees, because this is the only one they had.

    • says

      Hi, Bobbi. A Stewartia won’t respond well to topping (most trees won’t) and it will take time to become a grown-up and achieve its eventual shape I think (you don’t say how tall it is now?). Its natural shape is for the central leader to be somewhat taller than the secondary ones, so that the center of the tree even after many years will remain narrower and taller — it is somewhat pyramidal though oval (the overall shape) as it grows up. Of course if next spring that leader looks lifeless…you will have no choice but to cut. Hope not!

  5. Connie says

    I used to live on the grounds of Hersheys Azalea Farm (PA) where there are various tree specimens, including Stewartia and Franklinia.

  6. Tamara says

    Margaret-

    I am considering a stewartia to plant at the corner of my house. Its a tiny house (700 sq ft) and the roofline at that NW corner starts at about 10 ft high. We live in the northwest outside of seattle so summers are short but dry and other than about of week of 90 degree weather, temps stay in the mid 70s. This corner gets some early morning sun and late afternoon everning sun. in July and August, that means about 6 hours of sun at the end of the day. The rest of the year we have hardly any sun at all because of the grey raining 8 month winter. will a stewartia thrive there? Also, our natural soil is heavy river bottom clay and I will have to prepare a large non-native gravel lined soil hole for the tree. Advice on how big a hole for this tree to assure I don’t get the soup bowl effect and drown the tree in wet feet in winter? And advice on what soil mix to use? . The yard is about as small as the house so every plant/tree needs gets great treatment to succeed but then must perform or out it goes. This location is qujte visible from the front walk and the back yard we want a tree that will be happy and atractive. we like the stewartia or perhaps one of the kousa dogwoods which seem do fine here. it neither will work we can always find a jap maple which are as ubiquitous as grass around here Thanks

    • says

      Hi, Tamara. I think I’d listen to the info at the Elisabeth Carey Miller garden’s Great Plant Picks site. They are in Seattle. I have seen various species of Stewartia as mature trees in the Washington Park Arboretum, where they grow in the recommended light to open shade. They will need irrigation when weather is dry. The species Great Plant Picks recommends are pseudocamellia and monadelpha.

  7. Nancy says

    Hi Margaret,
    I just purchased a 6 foot Stewartia Pseudocamellia that I had intended to use as a shade tree. I had intended to place it in a sunny SW corner in my yard to provide some much needed shade. I’ve come to learn that these are pretty slow growing, so am wondering whether I made a wrong choice….. Do you know what the growth rate is for these trees and if there is any way to encourage faster growth? I’m in Seattle. I’d appreciate your advice! Thanks!

    • says

      Hi, Nancy. I have read that it grows 6-10 inches a year, and I’d say I have had about that, too. Slow. And no, don’t try feeding it a lot or anything; it needs to do its thing in its own time. :)

    • says

      Hi, Wil. Michael Dirr lists pseudocamellia as 5 (maybe 4) to 7 and koreana as 5 to 7. Meaning maybe pseudocamellia is a tiny bit more cold-hardy. But wow, seems very close.

  8. Bill says

    Hi Margaret: I have a stewartia pseudocamellia. 8 ft. when planted 2 years ago. Has never bloomed. Buds turn brown and fall off. Why?

    • says

      Hi, Bill. Flower buds “blast” (that is, fail to fully develop and open) on many plants (camellias, peonies, orchids…) mostly from an environmental stressor — too dry, too hot, too cold, too much temperature fluctuation … Environmental stresses are hard for us to control, except we CAN keep the plants well-watered on an even and regular basis to help it withstand whatever else comes along. Regular deep watering is key, especially the first several years in the ground with these trees, which really are slow to acclimate and settle in.

  9. Donna says

    Margaret
    I have a Stewartia that friends & family planted in my front yard 19 years ago for me as a memorial to my daughter who passed away. Her name is Tia. I love my tree especially when it blooms. My only problem is that when a bloom opens it only lasts that day and than falls off that night. Is that they way it is supposed to be or is there something I can do to make the blooms last longer.

    • says

      Hi, Donna. They don’t last long — a day or two I think — but they open over a longish period so some are in bloom for a couple of weeks as I recall. But you are right — each bloom is not long-lasting. I assume you keep the tree well-watered, especially in hot dry summers.

  10. Pooja says

    Hi Margaret, I have a pretty sunny spot, sun till 4 pm in June in Chicago, but it seems to hold water longer than other areas of my garden after a big rain. Do I need to make sure the soil drains quicker before planting a stewartia, or will the stewartia love the retained moisture? Help! And what species of stewartia is best for this area, but still gives me great all season interest? Many thanks, looking for ward to your response, ready to plant ASAP! Regards, Pooja

    • says

      Hi, Pooja. Standing water is a bad indicator for most plants, other than those that come from such an environment (e.g., winterberry hollies, buttonbush, some willows, etc.). Don’t plant a slow-to-acclimate sometimes-finicky-at-first tree there!

  11. Dianne says

    I have had my stewartia for about 5 years. It is alive but has several dead branches (including the leader) which I am about to prune off. On most of the live branches there is lichen. Why? And should I rub it off? I think that I need to water my tree more and have mulched it this year for the first time. It gets sun from late morning to sunset. I do hope I don’t lose it!

    • margaret says

      Hi, Dianne. Lichens don’t cause plant decline, and I would not rub it off. They are not parasites. Some sources say that lichens are more likely to form on declining (or even dead) wood — meaning sometimes their presence is a signal something’s up.

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