Plant Spotlight: Stewartia
By Eric Larson
“If you insist on taking me for a twitchel, providing unipygic gardening advice as
if an epigone of Gertrude Jekyll and imbibing my spirits until you are crapulent, is it any wonder that I experience intense hemothymia?” The Colonel put his glass of eighteen-year-old Scotch down on the side table with a resounding thud and tinkle of ice. I put my glass of stout on the coaster provided by my host and replied, “If it’s better that I come back later to discuss this, I’d be more than happy to…”
“DO sit down and let’s get to the bottom of this now so that I can sleep at night,” interrupted the lovely wife of my host as she entered the room with a plate of aged cheeses and artisanal crackers.
“Our gambrinous friend suggests that there is nothing wrong with the tree, and that the natural inclination of the species is to have peeling bark. It’s not a birch, is it?”
I shook my head as if to suggest that he should try again. “It’s not a Plane Tree?” Again the negative response. “Acacia?” Same rejoinder. “Well, this could go on all day. I say,” (emphasis on the ‘I’) “that the tree has been damaged by exposure to sun and salt, and suggest that your gardening skills have receded into anoia!” I pulled the volume of Michael Dirr’s ‘Manual of Woody Landscape Plants’ from my bag, turned to the appropriate page and began reading the description of the exfoliating bark of the Stewartia. Steam began to rise from my host’s ears and his wife’s smile became wider as I finished with a flourish: “…with often all colors intermingled on the same tree.” I took a moment to pause and look out the French doors to see the specimen in question, with cinnamon, tan, orange and gray flaking bark. The afternoon sun was to our right, and the purple leaf canopy testified acutely to the reputation of the autumn display of this genus. There are about six or seven species in the Stewartia genus, named for John Stewart (1713-92), Earl of Bute, British botanist and Prime Minister. I wonder why we don’t have any botanist politicians anymore? We would be so much better off with a plant science person calling the shots than a rancher/businessman/baseball team owner/lawyer-type (and might I add a not very successful example of any of them). But I digress (the Colonel has a pathological animus for such unless he is engaged in it himself): the genus belongs to the Tea family, Theaceae. Camellias and Franklinias are within the far-flung ranks of this family. There is one species of Stewartia native to the United States (S. ovata, whose range includes North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida), but the others are native to the Far East, specifically Japan, Korea and China. All of these are small to medium sized trees, except for one rather shrubby type.
S. pseudocamellia grows to about thirty feet, at a slow to medium rate of growth, making it an ideal choice for the small garden. The spread is about a half to two thirds of the height. It prefers rich slightly acid humic soil, and full sun to light shade. There are no bugs or diseases that beset the tree, and it needs little or no pruning to keep its shape or contain it. If you are not convinced, let me take you through the calendar year to shine the light on this great tree. In spring, the bright green leaves emerge, letting other vernal floriferous specimens carry the load. In summer, its white three to four inch flowers emerge, creating a show when many other flowering trees are just being green (perhaps with envy). In fall the fantastic autumn foliage puts on a show for several weeks. Reds, orange, purple and yellow can show up on a tree at the same time. It is unparalleled in this respect. In winter when subtle features are more apparent, the multi-colored exfoliating bark shows itself off, especially in snow or when backed up by evergreens.