For reasons that confirm that I can be a little food-obsessed at the best of times.
Every time I see a Japanese snowbell tree in bloom, I am reminded of the Richmond Night Market.
Normally, I am not an outdoor market sort of person, as I rarely covet a new purse, cellphone cover or designer sunglasses.
But when my daughters (who didn’t want to drive to Richmond at night) happened to mention that the food was pretty good, I thought I would give it a try.
What really impressed me was that almost everything was available on a stick – including spiraled potatoes, meat skewers of every description, shrimp, doughnuts, Chinese barbecue, dumplings, ice cream and fruit – and like most men, I find that food on a stick is not only convenient, but also seems to taste better.
Which brings us back to the Japanese snowbell tree or Styrax japonicus, which is covered from top to bottom with fragrant white bells at this time of year – cut off any branch tip and you literally have “fragrance on a stick.”
Personally, I think this flowering tree is much underutilized here, as it prefers growing conditions which include evenly moist (but not wet) acidic soils.
They are not overly large, maturing on average between 45- to 60-centimetres tall and prefer a part to full sun exposure.
The five-cm long deep green leaves shift to a butter yellow in autumn and the juvenile form is pyramidal, getting broader with age. The fragrant flowers are available in pink or white and are borne from late May into June, followed by dangling seeds that look like coffee beans on a thread – with the latter often persisting into winter. They are also quite cold hardy, being rated at either Zone 5 or 6, depending on the variety.
There are a number of worthy cultivars including ‘Pink Chimes’ (non-fading pink flowers and an Award of Garden Merit winner), ‘Carillon’ or ‘Pendula’ (weeping white form), ‘Rosea’ (pale pink flowers and darker foliage), ‘Emerald Pagoda’ or ‘Sohuksan’ (larger white flowers) and ‘Snowcone’ (a pyramidal form).
Japanese snowbells are particularly beautiful specimens for placing to the side of a back patio, as the tree is best viewed when looking up into the crown and the delicate fragrance only lingers about three metres away from the canopy.
They have very few disease problems, although young specimens will often suffer from minor tip dieback during the winter but eventually outgrow this problem.
Another Snowbell of note is Styrax obassia or the Fragrant Snowbell. It features much coarser ovate leaves and pendulous chains (up to 20 cm long) of fragrant white flowers which emerge just before Styrax japonicus.
It is considered a bit of a designer tree with its larger foliage and elegant upright structure, but I still like the flower display on the Japanese snowbell better.
That said, Styrax obassia is hardier and eventually grows taller, averaging 10 metres.
While Styrax is a rather large genus with upwards of 130 members, the only other species you are likely to come across would be the Chinese Snowbell or Styrax hemsleyanus (or hemsleyana) which somewhat resembles S. obassia but with rounder leaves. It is another RHS Award of Garden Merit winner and bears 15-cm long chains of pure white flowers in June.
Well, writing this article has just made me hungry (I told you I was a little food-obsessed), so I guess I’ll just have to fire up the barbecue and enjoy some homemade meat on a stick!
Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author. (firstname.lastname@example.org)