Friday, April 2, 2010

A Tree for All Seasons

A few years back in horticulture school, I fell in love with a tree.

This happens, mind you, to all horticulture students at some point.  After all, you are in Plant Identification class and learning 10 or 11 plants per week, 100 per term, for three straight terms.  That's not counting all the other marvelous specimens that suddenly take on meaning in the landscape.

For me it was Stewartia pseudocamellia.  What the heck is that, you ask?  Isn't there a common name... something better than the clunky Latinesque botanical name that surely came from a botanist, or his king?  Alas, there is no common name that I can find.  It is simply Japanese Stewartia.  If you are lucky enough to stumble upon this wonderful ornamental tree, and can actually identify it, you will see why I became smitten.

A diminutive tree, it is suitable for small spaces and can be grown under power lines.  Therefore it shows up on those popular lists of trees-to-plant in your ridiculously undersized yard, due to the fact that we all need to have 5,000 square feet inside and off-street parking for 10 vehicles.  But the charm of Stewartia is not found in its small size, like those beauty-challenged "fastigiate" trees so common now in the tiny-yard era. (Think maples, oaks, etc. with names like 'Sentry.'  Subtle.)

Stewartia will coax you from season to season, so that you grow to love and appreciate this varied tree.  It is deciduous, with a decent show of yellow to burnt orange and even red in fall highlighting the small elliptic leaves.  Heading into winter the trunk begins to take center stage, with a smooth plated, multi-colored bark ranging from reds to browns to grays, like an artist's smudged palette.  Later in winter you will begin to notice the formation of next year's buds, slightly fuzzy but angled and flattened, resembling sunflower seeds.  The spent fruit of last year may linger, woody spheres that have burst open.

Spring begins an appreciation for simple form, as the bright green leaves emerge from Stewartia's open, graceful branching.  The leaves will slowly expand to reveal a cheerful punch of light green in your landscape, and soon you might begin to note little white globes (floral buds) held daintily in their clutch.  The leaves remind me of dogwood, snowbell or perhaps a small-leaved variety of magnolia. 

Finally the moment we waited for... mid-summer, when all your flowering cherries and plums have fallen into boredom after the spring orgy of blossom as they stole all the attention.  Just when no one is looking, suddenly Stewartia reveals carefully spaced papery-white blossoms 1-2 inches wide, with cheerful orange anthers.  Think a camellia with class, none of that old-lady-lipstick-pink, but purest white.  Flowers are followed by dainty globe-shaped fruit and we are back into fall.

You might guess I have a Stewartia pseudocamellia.  It's in my front yard, an extravagant purchase three summers ago after a good month of landscape work.  It has held up to the coastal winter and summer winds, though my yard is somewhat sheltered from the ocean and the soil is rich and moist, with a little supplemental water in summer.  We carefully staked the tree for its first year and watched it closely through the first unstaked winter.  Though many people don't follow this advice, it's best to stake a tree the first year and untie it the second-- this develops a stronger trunk and roots.  Today the leaves began unfolding.

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