Plant of the Week
Silky Camellia (Stewartia malacodendron L.)
By Ken L. Gordon, Botanist
National Forests in Mississippi
While not a true camellia, the silky camellia is a distant relative and when in flower, attracts attention like few other native shrubs. The striking flower with its five white petals and numerous blue-purple stamens remind one of its distant relative, the Japanese Camellia. When not in bloom, the silky camellia is often overlooked. Many who frequent the woods in which this species occurs have no idea such a thing is present. Silky camellia is a shrub or small tree (growing to as tall as 7 meters). The branches are widely spreading, often with multiple stems. The branches diverge horizontally such that the leaves and twigs appear to be in one plane. The leaves are simple and alternate, ovate to elliptic with acute tips. The leaves are 5-10 cm long and 3-5 cm broad. The large and showy petals are on short stalks that lift them above the plane of the leaves. Silky camellia can be identified in any season by the broad spreading branches with twigs all in one plane and by the elongate silky-pubescent buds.
Stewartia malacodendron grows mostly on the coastal plain from southeastern Virginia, down the Atlantic Coast through North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The species’ range then turns westward along the Gulf Coast from the Florida panhandle, north-central and southern Alabama, southern Mississippi, west to the Mississippi River, and in adjacent parishes of Louisiana. There are disjunct populations in south-central Arkansas and east Texas.
The species is found as an understory plant in rich wooded bluffs, ravine slopes and creek banks. While always uncommon throughout its range, the range is widespread. Silky camellia does not form large stands but typically occurs as 3-10 localized plants, often associated with small trees of witch hazel.
Because of the interesting branching pattern and showy white flowers, the plants are sometimes cultivated in native plant gardens. Those who work with the species have found silky camellia to more than a little difficult to maintain and reproduce. The plant has a reputation for being short-lived and finicky as to site tolerance. However, for the southern gardener willing to learn how to work with the plant, few will deny that a properly sited mature specimen in bloom is one of the most beautiful native species of the south.