Designers may already be familiar with Japanese maples and flowering cherries, but this Japanese snowdrop or snowbell tree offers a unique aesthetic not met by the two I mentioned. On the one hand, S. japonicus has a complimentary form to Japanese maples; as they mature, branching becomes more horizontal and layered, giving both maples and snowdrops more dimension and texture. Unlike maples, snowdrops have the added bonus of showy blooms, although maples will win for fall color.
As for flowering cherries, they certainly have outstanding floral shows, but Japanese snowdrops offer distinctive aesthetics when in bloom. The flowers are pendulous, as seen in the feature photo, but at the same time, the leaves are also on display above the blooms. With its horizontal branching, the effect is a not so subtle striping of green and white. Whereas most flowering cherry trees will bloom first before the leaves, which is indeed striking but differs from the snowdrops. A collection of all three species in a garden would be quite stunning in spring, early summer, and autumn.
Other than horizontal branching at maturity, S. japonicus' growth habits are primarily multi-trunked, lending themselves as sculptural accents. Nurseries train them as standards, too, and they seem to perform well and maintain an attractive form. It has been my observation that specifying them in California's gardens, especially in warmer regions, will be more successful in places with afternoon shade. I do not see too much discussion about placement and sun exposure, only that snowdrops tolerate sun. But like Japanese maples that also tolerate sun, it appears that Japanese snowdrops prefer a little protection to perform their best. At least, that was my experience when designing gardens in parts of Sonoma County where summers are hot. I am curious to know if anyone has a different experience, so please comment if you wish.
Botanical Name: Styrax japonicus
Styrax: Arabic, assthirak, vernacular for Styrax officinalis
Common Name: Japanese snowdrop tree; Japanese snowbell
Family Name: Styracaeae
Origin: Eastern Asia
Positioning: Lawn, forest, raised planter, slope
Garden Themes: Asian-inspired, woodland edge, shade, winter, pollinator/hummingbird
Uses: Courtyard/patio, border, embankments, specimen, accent
Type: Deciduous tree
Form: Round when young becoming spreading, vase, or open with horizontal branching
Size: 30' tall by 20' wide
Outstanding Feature(s): Flower, form
Bark: Small stems zig-zag, mature are tan and fissured revealing copper coloring underneath
Shape: Elliptical, obovate
Margin: Entire to slight serrate
Color: Dark green with variable orange, red, or yellow fall color
Flower: Spring to summer. Showy, pendulous bell follow underside of stems. Light fragrance, white (pink cultivars)
Fruit: Autumn to Winter. Gray-green, showy, drupe.
cultural requirements, tolerances & problems
Sunset Zones: 4-9, 14-21
USDA Zones: 5-8
Light: Sun to partial shade in warmer regions
WUCOLS SF Bay Area Hydro Zone: Moderate
Texture: Sand, loam, well composed
Moisture Retention: Evenly moist
pH: Very acidic to slightly alkaline
Branch Strength: Medium
Insects: None recorded at time of posting.
Disease: None recorded at time of posting.
citations & attributions
Bayton, R. (2019). The Royal Horticultural Society's the Gardener's Botanical: An Encyclopedia of Latin Plant Names. London: Mitchell Beazley.
Extension Gardener. "Styrax japonicus." North Carolina State University, Raleigh. Accessed on September 1, 2021, from https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/styrax-japonicus/.
Norris Brenzel, K. (Ed.). (2012). The New Sunset Western Garden Book. New York: Time Home Entertainment, Inc.
Plant Finder. "Styrax japonicus." Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis. Accessed on September 1, 2021, from http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=c153.
SelecTree. UFEI. "Styrax japonicus Tree Record." 1995-2021. Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. Accessed on September 1, 2021, from https://selectree.calpoly.edu/tree-detail/1357.
Water Use Classification of Landscape Species. "WUCOLS IV Plant List." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Davis. Accessed on July 27, 2021.