Summary: Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonica) is a tree which can be grown as a small shrub or tree for interesting spring flowers as well as a good screening tree.
Many home owners realize it is no longer necessary to plant trees that grow to be 150-foot giants. In ever-increasing demand are trees under 30 feet in height, especially those with interesting spring flowers. Meeting both of these specifications is the Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica), sometimes called the Japanese snowdrop. Indeed, this native of Japan and Korea, which can be grown either as a shrub or small tree, is admirably suited to the grounds of the modern home.
Big Shrub Or Small Tree
When grown as a large shrub, the Japanese snowbell produces several wide spreading, gracefully arching branches from the base. A 15-foot bush may have a spread of 20 feet or more. Grown as a tree with a single trunk, the width is not as great. But either way, the dense habit of the plant makes it a good screen, and the delightful flowers on the underside of the branches prove surprisingly beautiful in late May or early June.
White, slightly bell-shaped with prominent yellow stamens, the 3/4-inch blossoms swing gracefully on long pendulous stalks an inch or more below the branch-lets. Since the dark green, fine-textured leaves (1 to 3 inches long by 1/2 to 1-1/2 inches wide) are borne in a horizontal plane, they do not detract from or hide the flowers hanging below them. For best display of this plant, place it so that viewers will look up at it and fully enjoy the beauty of the blossoms.
The branches, too, are horizontal, giving the tree a decided flat-topped appearance, an effect which goes very well with low houses and ideally suits the tree for use beneath electric wires. Pruning which augments, this flat-topped habit does not detract the least bit from the tree’s natural beauty.
The fruits are small drupes. Though not ornamental, they are often profusely produced. When dried, stored over winter and sown in spring, they produce a fine crop of seedlings. Volunteer seedlings often come up under old trees.
In Japan this tree is native in mountainous areas where taller trees provide light shade during most of the day. Here in America, the Japanese snowbell thrives in the same situations as our native dogwood, and is hardy wherever flowering dogwood can be grown. On the northwest Pacific coast, it also thrives beneath tall Douglas firs, which provide a high canopy of light foliage and cool, moist soil for the roots.
Difficult To Transplant
Although it has been growing in the Arnold Arboretum since 1892, this plant is still little known among amateur gardeners. The reasons are twofold. First, it is difficult to transplant. It’s often safest to set it out in its permanent situation as a pot-grown plant.
Secondly, while it is young and small, it is susceptible to late frost injury in spring. As a result, some folks who have attempted to grow it have been sadly disappointed. However, neither trait will prove troublesome if pot grown plants are purchased and the young trees given the best of winter protection the first few years. Afterwards, they seem to be perfectly hardy in normal winters. This plant is a low-maintenance subject in that it has no serious insect or disease pests.
After observing the performance of the Japanese snowbell I can report that it is one of the most floriferous and beautiful of the smaller trees that can be grown in this climate.
by D Nayman