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Stewartia malacodendron

The ornamental value of Stewartia malacodendron has been described by authors of gardening and botanical literature for at least 200 years. William Bartram in his Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida (1791) mentioned the plant several times. Near Savannah, Georgia, he wrote of “this ancient sublime forest,” which besides Stewartia malacodendron, included Cornus florida, Halesia, Aesculus pavia, Sambucus, and Callicarpa, among others.

Even then the forest was giving way to development, but conservation was not yet a concern. Bartram wrote that the forest was “frequently intersected with extensive avenues, vistas and green lawns, opening to extensive savannas and far distant Rice plantations,” and that it “agreeably employs the imagination, and captivates the senses by scenes of magnificence and grandeur.” [1]

One hundred and seventy three years after Bartram, Elizabeth Lawrence wrote of a special trip to see Stewartia malacodendron at the North Carolina coast. Her host Miss Kate took them, after many miles of driving, to some woods that looked “impenetrable,” but then “parted some sweetgum branches and walked into the underbrush as easily as if she had opened a door and entered a country parlor.” Ms. Lawrence had less grace than her host in that situation, and stumbled, grumbled, and lost a few hairpins along the way.

The indignities must have been worthwhile, because Ms. Lawrence recalled the visit ten years after the experience: Eventually, “she [Miss Kate] stopped on the edge of a deep ravine. At the bottom of it a sluggish stream, fed by an old spring, ran through a carpet of fern, and the slope between was covered with a thicket of stewartias. Standing there above them we looked down on the flowers, and that is the way they should be seen—from above, with light coming through many leaves before it reaches the ivory cups that seem to hold the sweet mystery of the woods.”

In June of 1964 Ms. Lawrence wondered whether “the place has been cut up into building lots, or whether a superhighway runs through the ravine.” She fondly remembered how she had, “looked down on those white flowers growing gently among the green leaves.” [2]

More recently Gil Nelson and Larry Mellichamp have favorably reviewed Stewartia malacodendron in their books.

Dr. Nelson: “The flowers are about three inches wide when fully expanded, making them appear inordinately large against the 2–4-inch leaves. The blossoms are composed of five crinkled petals that start out pure white but change to creamy or yellowish white by maturity. A mass of deep purplish or burgundy-red stamens decorates the center of the blossom, lending a regal air to the flower.” [3]

Dr. Mellichamp: “Silky camellia is one of the most wonderful year-round trees I have grown. It’s also one of the most difficult. […] In bloom, it’s breathtaking, with dozens of gorgeous white flowers well displayed on the sweeping leafy branches.” He suggests growing the plant in moist, well drained soil, and never letting it dry out until well established. [4]

The rewards must be worth any extra attention Stewartia malacodendron requires as it’s getting settled into your garden. Mike Dirr is reported to have said about the silky camellia, “It’s every gardeners dream plant, like the finest piece of art or sculpture.” [5]

Scientific name: Stewartia malacodendron

Common names: Silky camellia, Virginia stewartia

Family: Theaceae

Habitat: Southeastern US from Virginia to Texas, especially in wooded areas of the Coastal Plain

May 8, 2017
Ev-Henwood Preserve
Leland, NC

May 8, 2017
Ev-Henwood Preserve
Leland, NC

May 8, 2017
Ev-Henwood Preserve
Leland, NC

May 8, 2017
Ev-Henwood Preserve
Leland, NC

May 8, 2017
Ev-Henwood Preserve
Leland, NC

May 8, 2017
Ev-Henwood Preserve
Leland, NC

May 8, 2017
Ev-Henwood Preserve
Leland, NC

May 8, 2017
Ev-Henwood Preserve
Leland, NC

May 8, 2017
Ev-Henwood Preserve
Leland, NC

[1] William Bartram, Travels and Other Writings, Literary Classics of the United States, 1996, p. 256.

[2] Elizabeth Lawrence, edited by Bill Neal, Through the Garden Gate, The University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 113-114.

[3] Gil Nelson, Best Native Plants for Southern Gardens, University Press of Florida, 2010, pp. 94-95.

[4] Larry Mellichamp, photographs by Will Stuart, Native Plants of the Southeast, Timber Press, 2014, p. 340.

[5] Mike Dirr, via Niche Gardens, http://www.nichegardens.com/catalog/item.php?id=2573, accessed May 11, 2017.

Long Weekend at the Coast

When you haven’t written a real post in months, it’s hard to jump back in! An intimidating backlog of photos from the past year or two brings to mind so much ‘never did,’ that I just want to give up before I start. But today was a sunny, plant-filled day, so I’ll just start where I am.

Live Oak outside Trask Colisseum at UNC-W

My niece’s graduation in Wilmington gave me a good reason to spend a few days at the coast over the weekend. For a couple of days, my daughter and her friend stayed with me, and granddog Stormin Norman entertained us all. He has his own Instagram account, being spoiled and prone to selfies and all, but he’s really cute.

My husband arrived just after Norm and the (grown up) kids left. We considered the deaths since last summer of two plants in the front yard — a parasol tree and a crape myrtle. My father-in-law was intrigued by the parasol tree, and had been charting its progress for years. The crape myrtle was a gift from family friends when my husband’s brother died in 2000. A hurricane took the plants. Matthew left two feet of water here last fall and neither withstood the salty inundation.

At some point I realized I wouldn’t get a chance to go to Shelton Herb Farm if I didn’t do it in the morning, so I headed out after breakfast. Barely a mile down the road, the new Ocean Isle Market was going on in the lot beside the island’s nature museum. For the rest of the summer, there will be a market here every Monday morning—an exciting development in this tiny town. I decided to turn around and take a look.

This is Michella of Ocean Therapy Potions. I talked with her for a bit about essential oils and bought her Sleep Spray — with clary, lavender, bergamot, and chamomile, and the Digestive Roll-on for stomach upset or motion sickness — with ginger, cardamom, peppermint, orange and chamomile. Both are really nice! Her apothecary and aromatherapy business are based a few miles away in Oak Island.

Richard is a local propagator of carnivorous plants who is passionate about the native flora. The pitcher plants for sale at the market were seven years old, all grown from seed on his property. His recommendations for those who would grow pitcher plants: Pot them in well moistened peat moss and don’t use nitrogen fertilizers. Full sun. They’re easy to grow, he adds.

Fresh local vegetables and herbs will be coming to the market soon. Woohoo!


Shelton Herb Farm is in Leland, about 30 miles north of Ocean Isle. Shelton’s is a favorite stop whenever I’m in the area because they have plants you usually find only through mail order.

Nearly any herb you’ve ever heard of or thought about will be there at one time or another. They have a nice selection of Southeast natives as well.

No credit cards accepted, but they do pass the savings on to you…and they have fresh eggs, too!

Today, I didn’t get anything I went there for— they lost a lot of plants during Matthew, too — but I did find a few other things. Duh.

Dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum ‘Nana’)
Camellia sinensis (the plant black tea comes from)
Sweet goldenrod (Solidago odora)
Betony (Stachys officinalis)
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)
Coral trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’), a favorite native selection that I’ve just never managed to plant in my own garden.


About 5 or 6 miles south of Shelton’s on Highway 17 is Ev-Henwood Preserve, where I had seen the silky camellia (Stewartia malacodendron) blooming on Mother’s Day weekend a few years ago. That would be right about now, so I wanted to see if I could find them again.

It took a while.

The Stewartia Trail did not appear where I thought it should, and I wandered around for a while.

Someone had left this bloom on the picnic table where I stopped for lunch. If I hadn’t seen it, I might have given up too early and left disappointed.

But eventually, I did find them.

And aren’t they gorgeous?! I think they might be the prettiest flowers I’ve ever seen. Those stamens! Perfection. (More in the Folium.)


By the time I found these and then got back to the exit path, the afternoon was winding down and thoughts were turning toward getting back for dinner — the ‘D word’ to my husband and me. I think we are both ready to retire that domestic responsibility, but inconvenient evening hunger prevents it from happening. We managed with leftover lasagne and salad, which I liked a lot better than he did, and which probably means grilled wings tomorrow night.

There was a last stroll around the yard after dinner, to admire the new plants one more time, and to say goodnight to the evening primroses (Oenothera laciniata) in the nearly non-existent lawn (Matthew again).

And then a hello to the moon, whose incredible brightness demanded attention. I grabbed my camera, and after several shots of blurry white ball, I got the settings on the camera going the right direction. I had to pretend I was shooting in bright sun to get the ISO and aperture right…or at least closer to right. I wanted to be able to see the craters, and there they are!

Goodnight, moon. Goodnight, you. Thanks for reading!

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