By Nancy Buley, Communications Director, J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
Photographs courtesy of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
Listen closely and you may hear the sound of snowbells ringing in the summer garden. The dainty flowers and delicate form of Japanese Snowbell make this small tree a favorite of plant connoisseurs. Its small, pure white, bell-shaped flowers are suspended beneath the petite, glossy green leaves of late spring. Blooming in May or June, these small trees deliver beauty, color and fragrance to the landscape long after the flowers of magnolias, cherries, crabapples and other spring-flowering trees have come and gone.
Snowbells are generally easy to care for and are heat and drought tolerant and trouble-free once established. They prefer moist, slightly acidic soil with ample organic matter and perform best in USDA Zones 5-8. In hotter climates, partial shade is preferred.
Most of the cultivated varieties readily found in garden centers are cultivars of Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonicus). They range in shape from rounded to upright and conical, to weeping. Because seedlings deliver considerable variation in growth habit, mature form, flowering and overall performance, cultivars are your best option. More rare, but worth the search, is the earlier-blooming Fragrant Snowbell (Styrax obassia). Serious plant sleuthing will be needed to find North American native species that include American Snowbell (Styrax americanus) and Bigleaf Snowbell (Styrax grandifolius), both rare in the trade.
Snowcone® Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonicus ‘JFS-D’) features the same pure white, bell-shaped pendulous flowers as the species, but is unique for its densely uniform and pyramidal shape that inspired its name by resembling an upside-down icy snow cone treat. Flowering heavily at a younger age than seedling-grown trees, it is also resistant to the winter twig dieback problems that are often seen in trees of the species.
Snow Charm® Snowbell (Styrax japonicus ‘JFS-E’) grows reliably into a predictably uniform, rounded shape. Unlike trees grown from seedlings of this highly variable species, it can be counted on to develop a rounded canopy of about 20 feet in height and spread. Like Snowcone®, it resists twig dieback, but has larger, dark green leaves and a broader, more traditional form.
Spring Showers Snowbell (Styrax japonicus ‘Spring Showers’) was developed for gardeners and tree planters in areas of the country that are subject to late spring freezes. Deemed the best performer among plants with delayed bud break, it proved to bloom later in the season than is typical of Japanese Snowbells, thus escaping damage to flowers or even the death of the tree. Introduced by the U.S. National Arboretum, it was tested for more than a decade at their McMinnville, Tennessee research site, where it bloomed two to three weeks later than other cultivars, after risk of frost had passed.
Evening Light Snowbell (Styrax japonicus ‘Evening Light’ PP 24168) is the essential little black dress of the garden - especially when accessorized with dazzling pearl-like buds that burst into bloom in June. Its glossy purple-black foliage is unique among snowbells, providing a dramatically dark backdrop for the profusion of fragrant white, bell shaped flowers that appear late in the season when few trees offer a floral display.
With adequate soil moisture, some reblooming will occur. Heat-resistant foliage maintains its dark hue throughout the hot summer months. Upright oval in form, it reaches a mature height and spread of approximately 15' x 10'.
Fragrant Fountain Snowbell (Styrax japonicus ‘Fragrant Fountain’ PP 19664) resembles a verdant waterfall when its weeping branches are smothered by deep green leaves and a cascade of fragrant white flowers in late spring. Blooming heavily at a young age, it appears more tolerant of temperature extremes than most seedlings of the species. It’s a great choice for planting in a raised bed or on a steep slope so its branches can cascade over a wall or tumble down the slope. It can be staked to grow to a desired height, from which it will weep gracefully.
Marley’s Pink™ Snowbell (Styrax japonicus ‘JL Weeping’ PP 23755) is a top choice among pink-flowering cultivars. Its pink flowers and graceful weeping form are a unique combination of color and form. Bold dark green foliage, large pink flowers and vigorous growth make it a real winner and a better choice than other pink weeping snowbell selections.
Fragrant Snowbell (Styrax obassia) is my top choice among the snowbells, and a favorite in my garden, and a favorite of pollinators, too. A larger tree than its Japanese cousins, it flowers as the leaves emerge and enlarge, blooming about two weeks before S. japonicus. Its pure white, bell-shaped flowers of about one-inch diameter bloom in loose chains suspended beneath the large, rounded leaves. Smooth brown bark covers the upright, spreading branches. Their slightly wavy character presents an architecturally unique, bold winter silhouette. Fall color is bright yellow.
With more fine choices than there is room to describe, I encourage you to investigate these excellent cultivars on your own: Emerald Pagoda has leathery, exceptionally glossy dark green leaves and performs very well in the Southeast. Frosted Emerald is unique for its white-margined, green-centered leaves. Pink Chimes is an upright, pink-flowering selection. Prystine Spire™ (S. japonicus ‘MTFSJ’) is columnar in youth and matures to a narrow oval, reaching 20’ x 8’ at maturity. Developed in Georgia, it has demonstrated excellent heat tolerance in the Southeast. More top-performing cultivars of Japanese Snowbell are described in The Tree Book, co-authored by Dr. Michael Dirr and Keith Warren.
Detailed descriptions of the North American native species mentioned above may be found on the University of Delaware Botanic Gardens website. Many more species from around the world are described at Trees and Shrubs Online. This information-packed website is produced by the International Dendrology Society.
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