If I had to pick the best of all small trees, I would most definitely pick 'Stewartia pseudocamilla' to be the winner. It belongs to the Theaceae family (tea family) of which camellias are most popular. In contrast to most camellias, Stewartias are deciduous and don't have the leathery green color to their leaves. The leaves of Stewartia are delicate, with slightly serrated margins. The most striking feature of the leaves is its superb hues of orange, red and bronze -brown in fall, very similar to a sugar maple.
Once you place a Stewartia in the right location, you will enjoy it all four seasons. The bark has a stunning pattern with a mixed pallet of brown, red, gray, terra cotta, and cream. The pattern of this peeling bark can be enjoyed year round, but ofcourse being a deciduous tree, the architecture of this small tree is best enjoyed when only the bark and stems are visible.
The flowers of Stewartia resemble closely to Camellia sinensis (tea plant) wherein the petals are creamish white, with the most delicate appearance. Its hard to tell, if the flowers look better hanging down from the stems or fallen near the base of the trunk. These delicate flowers give the most ethereal look to the whole tree structure. They come out in June and the blossoms are abundant.
Stewartias however don't establish easily. They also dislike extreme heat and drought. But once placed in a right spot, they will be the stalwarts in your garden for years to come. Bark, leaves, flowers, seed pods, tree architecture, its difficult to pick one best feature, because all of these features are the best ones a small tree could have. Combine the best bark color, flower shape and leaf color into one and you have a winning small tree which never disappoint anyone, in any season.
We are lucky that we can grow this stunning Japanese beauty in zone 7! Although not popular in the nursery trade, it can be found in many arboretums and botanical gardens. Thanks to the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust for awarding with us a grant that now enables us to establish a lost collections of Stewartias in our spring walk, along with the Franklin tree and many other specimen trees. Come and enjoy the Stewartia blossoms at London Town this weekend.