History is full of stories about siblings, one whose fame eclipsed the other. Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII come to mind, or Kate and Pippa, Anne Bronte in the shadow of her sisters, Emily and Charlotte, little-known Edwin and his brother John Wilkes Booth. Or how about Penelope Cruz and her sister Monica? Google that one!
Such is the plight of Styrax obassia. It has always taken a back seat to its closest relative. Visit any nursery as planting season progresses and ask for an unusual flowering tree, perfectly scaled for the urban garden and, no doubt, the offerings will include Styrax japonica (Japanese Snowdrop Tree). But before you open your wallet and commit, consider its next of kin, the Fragrant Snowbell (Styrax obassia). If the nursery doesn’t have it, request a special order.
Native to Eastern Asia, this delicately scaled tree has the grace of a geisha.
Like its more famous sibling, this tree reaches 20-30 feet, but it does not stretch out as wide, possibly making it even more desirable for the city garden.
The leaves are substantially larger, 3-8 inches in length, oval and dark green. In autumn they turn a handsome, medium yellow. But the inch-long flowers, which emerge in spring, really set this beauty apart.
They dangle from the ends of branches in 6- to 8-inch clusters, perfuming the air all around them. They are a spectacle, as appealing to the vision as they are to the olfactory sense.
Both Fragrant Snowbell and Japanese Snowdrop require little maintenance once planted. Give them a spot to spread a bit in sun or light shade. Prune off lower branches in spring as the plant ascends, to keep the tree from getting shrubby, and remove cross branches.
Plant both in our characteristically rich, acidic soil, in a well drained spot. Dig a generous hole. Fill the hole with water, to the top, thrice, and let it soak down, allowing the area around the planting hole to be saturated. This advice applies to any new planting.
It encourages the roots to grow out from the rootball in search of moist ground. Remove the tree from its nursery container. Loosen the rootball and set the tree in place. Backfill with soil, water again and top with a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost. Irrigate the newly planted tree for the first two summers, if the season is dry.
Either of these trees is a good companion to place in front of dark evergreens, or to form a gentle canopy over rhododendrons and azaleas.
I like to see them, especially Fragrant Snowbell, sited at the edge of a patio where a garden chair or bench can be placed under the tree. When the plant blooms, you’ll be closer to the scent and can look up through the dropping blossoms. True, when the blooms fade, and later the seedpods and leaves drop, you’ll have to do some sweeping, but this tree is more than worth any trouble.
So, here’s to Ptolemy, Pippa, Anne, Edwin and Monica!
Those of us in the know are well aware of your value! And, after all, who wants to be a household name when you can be considered something of a unique elite.