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Little Known Trees in GPG: Japanese Snowbell
Japanese Snowbell Tree is currently underutilized in the home landscape
by Louise Clarke - Hort. Section Leader, Morris Arboretum - 2/22/2011
The Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonica), is a deciduous tree that is little known outside the realm of botanic gardens and arboreta. Currently underutilized in the home landscape, it possesses enchanting ornamental properties. The Morris Arboretum holds several specimens in its collection, many of which were grown from seed wild-collected in Korea on Arboretum plant collecting expeditions in the 1980s.
Styrax japonica is native to Japan and China, and was collected and documented by the German physician and naturalist Philipp Franz von Siebold in 1835. Japanese snowbell has alternate, dark green elliptical leaves which are held on the upper parts of horizontally spreading branches that form a rounded crown reaching 20 to 30 feet. The slightly fragrant, white, bell-shaped flowers dangle in clusters from the branches in late May and early June. After flowering, the developing greenish-brown fruit resembles small olives, which remains through August and typically drops by November.
Fall color isn’t the snowbell’s strong suit, typically being a tepid yellow, but winter interest is found in the tree’s branching pattern and smooth gray-brown bark that displays irregular orangish-brown blotches. The bark of older trees develops fissures through which the orange coloration appears and some older trunks develop a twisted, almost muscular appearance best appreciated in winter.
Among the Arboretum’s collection, the cultivar ‘Pink Chimes’ displays pendulous pink flowers on a dense, upright shrub. Look for it in the mixed shrub border east of the Key Fountain. ‘Emerald Pagoda’ or ‘Sohuksan’ has larger leaves with a darker green, leathery texture, and more sizable flowers. ‘Pendula,’ also known as ‘Carillon,’ is a weeping, white-flowered form that grows only 8’ to 12’ tall.
Planting this tree by a patio or a garden seating area allows one to best appreciate its flowers and fruit. It also mixes well in the shrub border, on slopes where its flowers can be appreciated, or as a lawn specimen. Amazingly trouble-free, few insect pests bother this tree which prefers moist, well-drained, acidic soil and full sun to part shade.
Woody plant expert Michael Dirr calls Styrax japonica “A handsome small tree for any situation … a tree of singular grace and beauty.” On your next visit to the Arboretum, seek out these unknown treasures with their interesting bark, handsome green foliage, and dainty, dangling spring blooms. Surely you’ll want to make room for a Styrax in your home landscape.