Japanese Snowbell (Styrax japonicus)

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‘Snowcone’ cultivar of S. japonicus. Photo from Seattle DOT.

When homeowners consider planting a tree these days, the mature height of the tree is a major consideration. Demand for small trees to accommodate small garden areas is very strong today compared with years’ past.

The ‘Japanese snowbell’, Styrax japonicus, is an attractive, small tree with a mature height of 20-30 feet that is worthy of consideration. This tree comes to us from Asia; it is native to China, Korea and Japan as the name suggests. The Japanese snowbell was first introduced to the U.S. around the time of the Civil War.

Styrax japonicus is a showy ornamental by virtue of the attractive white flowers in late spring and the horizontal branching pattern of this tidy, small tree. In late May and early June, the dark green leaves are perched along the top of the branches and white flowers hang beneath like tiny white bells with yellow clappers, or stamens. This can be very showy when the tree is in full bloom.

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Leaves and flowers of Japanese snowbell. Photo from wikimedia commons

Fall color is not spectacular but the leaves do turn a pleasant yellow in autumn. The fruit is a drupe, which hang singly below the horizontal branches as the flowers did. This tree is relatively pest free and the root system is not aggressive; it has proven to be well behaved in smaller spaces. Because of the horizontal branching habit, the tree will tend to become as wide as tall if left alone. It responds well to pruning and recovers quickly from winter damage.

Styrax japonicus is usually hardy to zone 5, so it works on both sides of the Cascades. It needs protection from direct afternoon sun during the summer months, but the tree’s handsome shape and modest size make it a good choice for planting locations in small gardens, patio areas or other sites where space is a limiting factor.

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‘Evening Light’, a purple-leaved cultivar of Japanese snowbell. Photo by Linden Lampman.

 

By Robert Buzzo

Robert Buzzo has worked in the nursery industry in Western Washington for over 40 years. For the past 28 years he has been the Manager of Lawyer Nursery, Inc. in Olympia. He has a degree in Plant Science from UC Davis, is a Certified Professional Horticulturalist (CPH) and is a member of the Washington State Nursery & Landscape Association (WSNLA).