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?


  1. Edward Vierheller says:

    Please tell me where I can order a Stewartia monodelpha ‘Nana Compacta’, ideally a multi-stem or low-branching single-stem specimen with a vertical (NON-pre-Bonsai) trunk?

    1. margaret says:

      I don’t know, Edward, and did a search online that didn’t turn up any places. When there is something special I want I go to the very best woody plant nursery near me and ask them if they can source it, since they have all the wholesale catalogs of great growers around the country. Worth a try. Sometimes it takes a year to track it down, but I have gotten some unusual things over the years that way.

  2. Mary says:

    I purchased and planted professionally two years ago my Japanese Stewartia. The first year it blossomed well for a newly planted tree the second year it was coming along until the Japanese beetles exfoliated seventy five percent of the tree late June. Some leaves did grow back over the summer. This year it has hardly any leaves mostly on the bottom, it does have buds but still not open it looks like a large stick in the ground. The bark has started peeling nicely, more since last fall. It has been very dry here in PA. less then an inch of rain last month. I do water it regularly ever since it was planted. It is quite tall around fourteen feet an multi-trunk. Any suggestions what could be happening with my tree? My husband says it looks dead to get rid of it. It was an expensive tree and when healthy it was beautiful the first year.

    1. margaret says:

      I would start by contacting the place you bought it from (you say it as planted professionally) and let them know your experience. It does sound as if the multiple insults — something that hadn’t had time to settle in, really, then being defoliated by beetles and then assaulted by drought — may have been too much for it. It should be fully leafed out by now for at least a couple/few weeks, I would think.

  3. Robby says:

    Very helpful finding your blog while considering Stewartia Mondelpha after seeing a gorgeous specimen in the winter garden at UW’s Washington Arboretum. I’m considering it against a tall front of house wall facing East in Seattle suburb. The sopt is roughly 15′ x 12′, morning sun, driveway on 2 sides, house on a 3rd. Would you be concerned about the roots near the house or driveway? Suggestions for obtaining a multi trunk growth from near grond level, or maybe that is the natural habit? Any other thoughts or advice much appreciated.

    1. margaret says:

      I think it depends if there is enough room for it “someday” when it is at least 15 feet wide and 30 feet tall. Like I’d probably want to place it 12 or so feet from a building so that even when mature (and each side is half that 15 wide) there is still breathing room on that side. Not sure your space sounds like a big enough footprint.

  4. Camilla says:

    I have a new stewartia and it is about 18 feet tall. It has quite a few dead branches – not all at the top – just all around. Should I cut them off and if so when?

    1. margaret says:

      With the “3 D’s” — dead, damaged or diseased branches — it’s always fine to remove them when they occur, so yes, go ahead and clean it up.

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