Family: Styracaceae (Storax family)
Species: americana, japonica, officinalis
courtesy of Oregon
State University Landscape Plant Database
you remember last months mention of Alexander Garden,
the Scots physician and botanist who transplanted himself to
what was then known as Charles Town, South Carolina. He forwarded
many dried and living specimens as well as field notes to Carolus
Linnaeus in Sweden, who had set about cataloguing plants, classifying
them, and devising the system of nomenclature that today helps
us make sense of it all.
was repeatedly frustrated with Linnaeus reluctance
to accept the premise that the plants in what was then the
new world did in fact represent completely different genera
and species from those found elsewhere. One of Dr. Gardens
most persistent cases was made on behalf of the American snowbell,
sometimes called the little-leaf snowbell, which today is in
fact classified as Styrax americana. Its noble name
has not protected it, however, from humankinds steady
encroachment into its native habitat. What are variously called
pitcher plant bogs, moist pine barrens, grass-sedge bogs, or
savannas once occupied about 75 percent of the Atlantic and
lower Gulf Coast plains, from Virginia to Texas. Today, less
than 3 percent of this area remains untouched, and the American
snowbell is an endangered plant. Efforts are underway to reclaim
it on a state-by-state basis. However, at this point, it is
easier to find an American snowbell in east-coast arboretums
and botanical gardens than it is to spot one in the wild. It
is seldom seen in retail nursery centers, although seeds are
available through some heritage societies. Even references
to it are disappearing from the most widely used garden books.
If you did find an American snowbell, it would adapt to our
Northwest climate, although it would ask for ample and consistent
moisture and protection from the wind. It would reach a height
of ten feet, and tend to shrubbiness. Most of the members of
the Styrax genus are suited for their historical place
as residents of the understory. Theyre used to something
else buffering them from the effects of a harsh climate.
other snowbells are more readily available to the home gardener,
as a class
these lovely shrubs and trees are singularly
underused. Thats a shame, since they can be wonderful
additions to the landscape. Styrax japonica, the so-called
Japanese snowbell (even though its native to China),
is a very desirable, small deciduous tree, reaching a height
of ten feet in ten years. Older trees may grow to twenty feet,
so plan accordingly. Birds and gardeners who have discovered S.
japonica tend to be smitten with it, as is the Royal Horticultural
Society, which has given it an Award of Merit. It has a lovely
form, attractive foliage, and small but very beautiful and
slightly fragrant white blossoms that dangle from its branches
in May and June. The flowers help bridge the gap in the garden
between the spring bloomers and the flowers of summer. The Styrax show
is extended by the appearance of an abundance of little white
fruits that dance below the branches. S. japonica Pink
Chimes has pink flowers, if you prefer that shade, and S.
japonica Carillon offers a weeping form and
white flowers. Garden designers recommend placing your S.
japonica where you can look up into it and appreciate the
show. There is some fall color, although it is not dramatic.
But the flat-topped form and horizontal branches that characterize Styrax add
a pleasing presence to the winter landscape.
and shrubs appreciate neutral to acid soil; a sheltered location,
in sun to part shade; regular but
not overly abundant moisture; and sensible site preparation
and general care. They are not bothered by any particular pests,
although when stressed by their conditions, they can become
susceptible to stem borers and leaf-chewers. Any damage is
easily controlled and is not likely to affect the trees
committed to water conservation during our dry summers, you
seeking out a Styrax officinalis,
which has the distinction of being what is perhaps the only
species that is native to both California and Europe. Cant
you just hear Linnaeus saying, So there, Dr. Garden!? S.
officinalis actually prefers a dry-summer climate. It tends
to a shrub form, and its flowers are abundant and very fragrant.
Its seeds are reputed to make fine Rosary beads and its sap
is used in some areas as incense.
bound to be a particular Styrax that meets
your needs and suits your own personal garden style. Whatever
controversies may have surrounded its naming and designation,
they pale before its beauty. The lovely members of this genus
delight all gardeners, whether they pursue their horticultural
passions in the new world or the old.