Underutilized Trees for Urban Use: Japanese Snowbell

Drupes of Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica) Photo by Michelle Sutton

Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonica) is often confused with its Styracaceae family cousin, Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina). While their flowers are similarly white, pendulous, and bearing yellow stamens, their foliage and fruit are very different. Japanese snowbell foliage is glossy and elliptic-obvate, with leaf tips curving upwards, and its fruits (drupes) look like little green (and eventually brown) olives; you’ll recall Carolina silverbell has longer, matte/dull leaves, with fruits that are football-shaped.

Japanese snowbell flowers, by Corinne Kennedy, from seattlejapanesegarden.org

Japanese snowbell is a pest and disease-resistant small tree that works well in parks, on college campuses, in residential lawns, and other urban environments where their roots have plenty of soil volume from which to get their moisture needs met. In our climate, it’s not likely to get more than 30 feet tall and wide. It’s hardy to Zone 5, but in that bottom range of hardiness, it should be planted so that it’s protected from winter winds.

Happy lawn specimen of Japanese snowbell. Photo by Michelle Sutton

As an understory tree, it can grow in sun or part-shade. It can tolerate moderate levels of drought. It’s very soils-adaptable with the exception of highly alkaline environments. That, combined with the fact that it doesn’t tolerate soil salt well, means it’s not the best street-side or sidewalk-adjacent species.

Japanese snowbell bark.  Photo by Michelle Sutton

Fall color is generally unremarkable yellow, sometimes with a tinge of red, but the tree has ornamental interest year-round owing to its interesting, flattened overall habit, its bark (gray, with fissures revealing orange), its persistent fruit, and of course, its flowers. It’s not used enough, and it’s exciting to come upon one.

Upward-curving, glossy foliage and persistent fruit of Japanese snowbell. Photo by Michelle Sutton

 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: