Paul’s Plant Pick Week 4: Japanese Snowbell

Twenty-five or so years ago, I planted a tree that at the time I’d never heard of, let alone seen growing anywhere around Tulsa. It was a Japanese Snowbell, known botanically as Styrax japonicus. I treated it as an understory tree, sticking it in a spot that received dappled light all day thanks to a twisted, strangely contorted old hackberry that looked like it belonged in a scene of The Hobbit.

That was in November, as I recall. The following spring, the tree’s small, glossy, medium green leaves emerged, and I was impressed by its overall look and form – open, airy, with branches more horizontal than vertical and a rounded crown. But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. In early May, seemingly overnight, my Snowbell was covered with pendulous clusters of bell-shaped, mildly fragrant, waxy white flowers. Hundreds of them! I immediately fell in love with my Snowbell, and my affection hasn’t waned in the years since.

The gorgeous flowers (which bees love) give way to greenish-brown drupes (fancy, but technically correctword for fruits) that look like little olives. Fall color is nothing to write home about (leaves turn a pale yellow), but in time the gray bark develops fissures that reveal a beautiful orange inner bark.

Japanese Snowbell can take a fair amount of sun, but a spot that gets afternoon shade is best. It also does well in dappled light throughout the day. It’ll ultimately reach 25-feet tall and wide, but that’ll take at least a decade, maybe even two. And for what it’s worth, after 15 years, mine was only 10-feet tall and wide. Here’s one more thing to keep in mind: Japanese Snowbell has no known pest or disease problems, and isn’t all that finicky about soil type.Small trees with a long list of attributes are hard to come by. The Japanese Snowbell is perhaps the best of the lot.