About a week ago a near-tornado roared through my area, wreaking havoc on trees right and left. It made me think about how important trees are to a garden’s structure and design. Sometimes they are there when you buy the house, providing shade, a focal point, beauty and shelter. Other times, you add them yourself, choosing what you hope will be a successful addition to the garden.
The storm took down two huge branches from my dying American beech tree, but I’ll write about that another time, hopefully later rather than sooner. Today I want to introduce at least some of you to one of my favorite trees for shade, Styrax japonicus, or the Japanese snowbell tree.
This portion of my garden, although south-facing, gets only filtered sunlight for most of the day because of the high canopy of the many oak trees in my neighbor’s adjacent yard. Nevertheless, the tree blooms prolifically each May (even when we had our 17-year cicada plague several years ago). The blooms look like small white bells, hanging down from the branch, with the leaves perched above the branch. This habit makes the tree wonderful for planting on a slope or above a small retaining wall so the flowers are at eye level.
In my book, you grow this tree for its flowers and shade-tolerance. The bark is an attractive gray, but its fall color, while sometimes a pleasant yellow, is not particularly showy. It’s also relatively pest-free, grows quickly, and requires no special treatment. Hardy to Zone 6 (and warmer parts of Zone 5), it also comes in a pink-flowered version called ‘Pink Chimes,’ shown below at Brookside Gardens. For something a bit more different, look for a weeping version called ‘Carillon.’
I’ve noticed that as they age, these trees can look a little weedy and be prone to suckering – but that’s nothing that can’t be cured by regular pruning, if necessary. So if you have a shady garden and want an ornamental flowering tree that’s a bit unusual, check out the Japanese snowbell. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.