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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, and adaptable to Zones 5-8.

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, with orange bark.

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

  1. Brenda says:

    Hi, Margaret. I can’t find ANYWHERE ON THE WEB if this tree blooms on NEW or OLD wood. We have 3 at our nursery that were shipped as a “Clearance” bundle from a small nursery and they are without a single bud. Established trees around the area have marble-sized buds on them right now, ready to bloom in several weeks.

    I hope you can answer this question as I’ll hold them back a year to set bud if they ONLY bloom on old wood. Thanks in advance.

  2. Stephen says:

    Hello Margaret, I have a Stewartia Koreana that I planted about 10 yrs ago. It’s in pretty much full sun except from about 12-2pm when it is in dappled shade from an enormous Silver Maple.
    Now my question please….it has been extremely dry this may/June & I decided to water it thoroughly. I placed the bare hose end at the base of the trunk on slow flow for about 90 minutes. All of a sudden the next morning I noticed at least 300 marble sized flower buds had fallen off. I would say 75% of the buds fell.
    This happened about 5 yrs ago but I don’t remember if it happened after a heavy watering or not. I watered it starting at about 6 pm on an 85 degree day. My guess is that the hose water was cold & the roots may have gotten chilled while the canopy was hot & it ‘shocked’ the buds into falling off ?
    The bud drop was so soon after watering that I thought it must have been related. Are there any other reasons for this type of bud drop ?
    Thank you,
    Stephen C.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Stephen. This tree just won’t tolerate dry conditions, so the buds might have fallen off, anyhow. I don’t know if it was coincidental or cause/effect. Remember when watering that the root zone of a tree that age is big so you might want to snake a long piece of drip hose all around, or water with a fan-style oscillating sprinkler on low for many, many hours back and forth.

  3. Patricia Purnhagen says:

    How long do the flowers last? I just planted one this spring. It came with buds. The buds are flowering, but the flowers are falling off.

    Is this typical for the first year?

    1. margaret says:

      Seems like they don’t all open at once, but rather some each day over a period of maybe a couple of weeks, so some will have already fallen but newer ones continue to appear on the tree. Because of this succession of bloom, it’s never covered in them at any moment.

  4. Ken says:

    I looked for one of these for a long time and bought a sapling online. It was growing well, after 5 years it just a didn’t come back after winter. A real stunner of a tree. Friend have one that is easily 25 feet tall with multiple trunks. A real stunner, and bark on a larger, mature tree is fantastic.

    1. margaret says:

      Actually, I am told by nurserymen friends who need to know such things, that the answer is no, it’s not a deer magnet.

    1. margaret says:

      What will and won’t grow near a black walnut is a subject of some discussion and not any one specific answer — each region seems to have different “will” and “won’t” plant lists. I would hesitate to try something as pricey and special and slow-growing as a Stewartia (something you want to give all the best possible TLC and treasure) in an iffy location. Might grow, might sulk near the black walnut. More on that here.

  5. Z brand says:

    I have one that ion place for 25 years. Clearly some disease attacking it. Is there anything it is especially susceptible to? Would there be any danger of infection in putting in a new one in the same place?

    1. margaret says:

      I would never replace a mysteriously dying/dead tree or shrubs with the same thing or a relative, but would try to get a diagnosis first, perhaps from your county or state Cooperative Extension pathology lab? I’d call and inquire what the procedure is (send photos, send tissue samples, soil samples too, whatever they say…) and find out if they can help you. I don’t know where you live, but generally Stewartia is thought to be mostly trouble free. It might be suffering from a stress other than a pest or disease (e.g., dryness, other weather extremes that have stressed and weakened it, etc.). Maybe start here to find your Extension office (sorting by state, then county).

  6. Barb K says:

    We have a Stewartia that was planted about 8 weeks ago. We water every other day and it bloomed about 2 weeks ago. All of the sudden the leaves started dying from the outside in! There are very few green leaves left. We continue to water….. we do fast trickle for an hour at base. We live in Southeast NC and were told our homes are built on swamp land ….. and we have pine straw for mulch. What can we do to save our tree?

    1. margaret says:

      Barb, this sounds very extreme, so I would call the nursery you bought it from and describe the issue. Hard to diagnose from the description.

  7. Elizabeth Greenhalgh says:

    I have a lovely established Stewartia in a happy spot yet it’s growing a little too close to house and roof. I would like to prune. May you please suggest how I prune to insure the best for our special tree?

    1. margaret says:

      Without being able to see it it’s hard to say what to take out, afraid to say. This is not a tree that normally wants pruning, as its natural shape is very distinctive, and heavy pruning (like reducing the length of branches partway) will ruin its character. I have occasionally removed an entire branch at the trunk, or a major side shoot, but never shortened a branch otherwise.

  8. Kathy says:

    I have a Stewartia Koreana we planted about 20 years ago. It’s always looked very health but the shape is strange – there is one trunk, very wide, bushy, then it narrows severely for about eight feet. I’m tempted to prune the top off.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Kathy. Without seeing a photo I couldn’t offer my 2 cents. I lost a section of one side of my old one and am pondering balancing it a bit by removing a branch or two on the other side…

  9. Heather says:

    When will the bark start to turn interesting colors? I’m buying a Stewartia pseudocamellia tree in a 15 gallon pot and the bark is all uniform. Is that what the bark looks like on a young tree?

    1. margaret says:

      The bark does improve with age — I definitely noticed that, as with Kousa dogwoods and other trees whose bark starts to exfoliate nicely as they reach a more mature age — but how many years that takes I cannot say specifically.

  10. Geraldine Bontrager says:

    I have a Stewartia that is around 8 ft tall. It had a hugh amount of buds and flowers last month. I now notice another hugh amount of new buds all over the tree and I don’t remember it ever getting a second flush of buds. The foliage is beautiful and healthy but am wondering if it shouldn’t be budding again ?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Geraldine. Are you having a very favorable year of even rains and not stressful weather like too much hot/dry? I wonder if it it just extra-happy. Mine seems to keep producing more (though fewer) flowers week after week, which I attributed to the evenly moist season so far perhaps.

  11. Heidi Evans says:

    I am smitten by this tree and really want to put it in the corner of our front yard, which is at the front of the neighborhood. My husband is worried about the ultimate height. We are seeing 12′ to 40′ — quite a range. 40′ would be far too big. Our yard is quiet small. 20-25′, if the only tree would be manageable. Can you help us discern what the true height and circumference of a mature tree will be?

    1. margaret says:

      It will be a long time before it reaches more than 20 feet, I think, and I would expect it to top out there or slightly larger, maybe 25. 40 is possible in nature I suppose, but unlikely in a garden setting. As far as width eventually, each tree is different — mine has many low-breaking branches (so there is no tall trunk first before the branches branch off; it’s more like a giant shrub shape). That means it’s wider near ground level than one that has been trained or pruned to have a more distinctive trunk. But I would think 12-15 feet across.

  12. Mike Karin says:

    I have five stewartia trees and only one is showing stress and that one is closest to the road where rain and snow melt runs off. The leaves look like they are burning up. Did a soil test but results are normal. What do you think is causing harm to this one tree? Thanks

  13. ronnie ann herman says:

    I have a lovely 20-year-old Stewartia, single trunk, that is thriving, even though it gets sun very little sun. There are around 4 very thin branches, around an inch in diameter and the lowest branches on the tree, that I would like to remove because they are touching some flowers in nearby beds. Could the pruning be harmful to this lovely tree? And if you think I can prune them without damaging the tree, I assume I should prune them in winter. Thank you very much for your help!!!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Ronnie. I can’t see your tree of course…but I can’t imagine that removing such thin branches on the bottom of an old tree like that will make a bit of difference. Go for it, and late winter is fine.

  14. Cristina says:

    Hi I just made a purchase, I’m excited about this tree but nervous as well, I was wondering if the flowers have any fragrance to them and if so what would you describe it as? This appears to be quite tall in a 25 gal pot, I live in central NJ zone 7. Also I was wondering if the branches may grow a bit horizontal, I thought about adding a birdhouse maybe some lights …. or is it considered a shade tree as well? Can a grow enough to have a sitting bench underneath it or a small picnic table… are the flowers edible … I’m sorry so many questions but not enough resources online :0( thank you kindly

    1. margaret says:

      I have never observed any fragrance, no. I would not put anything in this tree and risk any damage. As far as the shape and size of your tree someday, each individual one is slightly different — some narrower and some wider — and they are slow-growing and never get giant. It’s the kind of tree you want to observe at its various seasons for its ornamental features — the flowers in July, the bark (once the tree matures and it gets all peely) year round, the fall foliage color…) but isn’t a shade tree to sit under, no. After like 20 years I bet mine is still under 20 feet tall and maybe 12 or so wide at the widest part (near the lower branches).

  15. Margaret Hunt says:

    I live on the coast of Maine and the wind, especially in Winter, is impressive. Would this tree be able to handle that?

  16. Ann Patterson says:

    I’m in Maine, too. I bought this 7′ tree this spring, but didn’t put it in the ground for a month, because the location I wanted to put it is a six-feet deep mound of construction soil on the edge of a woods. I eventually planted the tree there regardless, and watered it daily until late Sept. Its start here, idling in the pot, was not great for it, but it recovered nicely. I lost buds, but not leaves. What kind of winter protection should I provide my costly investment? I wondered about tree boughs or pine needles or something on the ground around it. We’ve had our first hard frost here. I’ve wanted a Stewartia forever, and hope I can get it through a rude Maine winter.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Ann. You could mulch after the ground freezes, but I have not given it any special winter care in all these years truth be told. I think the key is that it was watered regularly in the growing season and will be again next spring (avoiding stress from dry spells) …

      1. Ann says:

        margaret, thank you. I somehow missed your response. I’m glad to hear it, because I neglected to mulch the ground after all. I intend to have a waterer on a timer. I think the plant really liked a twice daily shower last summer after I finally planted it. Thanks again.

      2. Ann Patterson says:

        margaret, thank you. I somehow missed your response. I’m glad to hear it, because I neglected to mulch the ground after all. I intend to have a waterer on a timer. I think the plant really liked a twice daily shower last summer after I finally planted it. Thanks again.

  17. Francesca says:

    I baught a fantastic 12 feet stewartia today. It has an elegant, willowy shape but trunk and branches are quite slim and its not very dense. My question: if I prune a little the tops, would the tree get stronger and/or more densely branched? If yes, how much should I prune? And should I prune it now (hasn’t foliage yet) or better next year? Thank you!

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t think it’s a tree that would respond well to being topped. The multiple trunks of mine have gradually each become thicker over the years. Often it’s grown as a multi-stemmed tree (sounds like that’s what you have) and is a slow grower when young.

  18. SARAH says:

    My Stewart is had the same problem. A good deep watering fixed it overnight. Now 90% of the buds open perfectly. The bees love it.

  19. Betsy says:

    I’ve had a Stewartia tree for about 5 years and it’s never bloomed! I got it from a friend who said it was a Stewartia and the leaves certainly look like it. It’s in dappled sun light and has grown from 2′ to 6′ or more, but no blooms. I have other flowering plants in this same area and they all seem to be doing well,

    1. Emery says:

      I have the same problem and can’t seem to get an answer. The tree is growing well but no flowers in the six years since I bought it.

  20. Karen says:

    I’m in a panic. My Stewartia has been in the ground about 14 years. It’s been lovely (altho there were some years when barely a flower appeared ).

    But we had only a little over one inch of rain last month (a hot September) and the outer leaves (1/3 of each leaf) are now crisp brown. The inner leaves look ok. Diagnosis? Too much hot sun? Not enough rain? (after so many years, and in clay soil, I would have thought it didn’t need watering.)

    In addition, the recent twigs seemed to have a strange growth pattern.. thin, turning upward. Never saw that before. So — never having pruned the tree I wonder if I can do so now.. partly to remove the unsightly leaves, partly to remove the strange upward skimpy twigs.

    Thankyou for any suggestions.

  21. Don Pancake says:

    Can you plant under or near stewartia? O have several redbuds that do well with underplaying in my small Urban garden. Would stewartia be similar or would it have difficult or sensitive roots?

    Thanks in advance

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Don. I have perennials growing under mine, but as with any established tree: don’t dig with a big shovel in the root zone, but instead start with small plants (or divisions of larger plants). I use my narrowest trowel or a hori-hori (Japanese weeding knife) to plant little plants in little pockets when working beneath established woody plants.

  22. Nancy J. says:

    Hi, Margaret,

    I just discovered that a gorgeous tree in our community is a Stewartia. It has not bloomed yet this year, but it is very healthy. This tree is almost fifty years old and was planted as part of the original landscaping. It is so much larger than any similar tree I have been able to research (approximately 6-7 feet in girth). My question is “How much would it cost to replace this tree, if we could find one this old and this big? Hope you could give me just a idea of replacement cost although it is irreplaceable to us.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi Nancy. Usually Stewartia are smaller than the massive trunk you describe — what makes you think it’s a Stewartia?

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