The Snowbells

Family: Styracaceae (Storax family)
Genus: Styrax
Species: americana, japonica, officinalis

Picture courtesy of Oregon State University Landscape Plant Database

SnowbellsPerhaps you remember last month’s 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.

Dr. Garden 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. Garden’s 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 humankind’s 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. They’re used to something else buffering them from the effects of a harsh climate.

While other snowbells are more readily available to the home gardener, as a class these lovely shrubs and trees are singularly underused. That’s a shame, since they can be wonderful additions to the landscape. Styrax japonica, the so-called Japanese snowbell (even though it’s 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.

Styrax trees 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 tree’s lifespan.

If you’re committed to water conservation during our dry summers, you might consider 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. Can’t 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.

There’s 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.