Stewartias are a beautiful group of flowering trees and shrubs that come into bloom right after the spring flush of flowers by other plants but before summer settles in. Most are native to Asia but two are native to southeastern US. They are members of the tea family and so are related to Camellias and Franklinias. The solitary cup-shaped white flowers usually have five petals with a delicate texture and range in size from 1-4.5 inches in diameter. The dark green leaves are simple, alternate, and oval, usually with a pointed tip. The exfoliating bark is orange-yellow and often provides good interest in winter. Most stewarties are deciduous and grow from six to sixty feet tall depending on the species and growing conditions so have potential in a variety of garden sites. All stewartias like moist, acid, well-drained soil, and plenty of sun, although afternoon shade in the South may be desirable.
Stewartias are not all easy to find but are well worth looking for. Here are five favorites that can be ordered from online nurseries.
Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocameillia)
The best known of the Stewartias, this species has the most copious floral display. The large white flowers have over one hundred yellow stamens to produce a lush display. Foliage turns maroon to reddish orange in fall and the bark exfoliates to create a mosaic of beige, silver, olive and reddish brown.
Flower Size: 4”
Hardiness: Zones 6-8
A native of China, this species is the first Stewartia to bloom each year. One or two of the flower petals often have a pink blush and the stamens are orangey yellow. The gray bark is ridged; the leaves turn yellow, orange, or red in the fall.
Flower Size: 2.5”
Hardiness: Zones 5-9
Chinese stewartia (Stewartia sinensis)
This species is noteworthy for its spectacular marble-like bark that features shades of tan, purple, and brown as the outer layers peel away in long sheets. The flowers are small and the foliage bright green turning dull red in the fall.
Flower Size: 1.5-2”
Silky Stewartia (Stewartia malacodendron)
This native of southeastern US is a multistemmed shrub featuring flowers with forty to fifty purple stamens and petals with an exquisite silky texture that gave rise to its common name. The leaves are light green and may be buttery yellow to orange and dark red in the fall. The light gray bark is lightly flecked.
Flower Size: 3.5”
Hardiness: Zones 7-9
Mountain Stewartia (Stewartia ovata)
This small tree or shrub is another southeastern US native and the last Steartia to bloom. It has large flowers with slightly ruffled petals and yellow anthers held on white to yellow, blue and purple filaments. The large dark green leaves turn purplish black with chartreuse veins in the fall. The light gray bark has brown undertones, is fissured, but is not as showy as other stewartia bark.
Flower Size: 3-4.5
Hardiness: Zones 5-9