Friday, January 23, 2015

Trouble at the Top

Stewartia monadelpha flower in late June,
small and hard to see
In 2010 I planted a Stewartia monadelpha.

It's called tall stewartia, probably because this tree stays quite narrow (about 10 or 15 feet wide) as it grows in a pyramidal shape up to 25 feet high.

It's also called Orangebark because of its cinnamon colored trunk.

It is similar to the Stewartia that is more commonly planted -- the showy Japanese pseudocamellia tree that has a profusion of big white fried egg flowers, red fall color and mottled bark.

But S. monadelpha is quieter than its showy cousin. It is slender and delicate. The leaves are small and narrow, the subtle orange toned trunk is skinny, the flowers are tiny and few, although they look like the pseudocamellia flowers, just much smaller.

But in its quiet way it is a very elegant tree.

Only in fall does it abandon all refinement and dress up in brilliant scarlet and shout "fire in the yard" at the top of its lungs.

I mean, how red can a red tree get?

Even in its first season, in 2010, it was a skinny scarlet column of rich red.

When it is not on fire, it is the elegant narrow pyramidal shape of this unassuming tree that recommends it.

But in spring of 2011, after its first winter in my garden, the top half of this pretty tree did not leaf out. That gorgeous, slender shape was toast at the top.

So I had to cut it back. I used a side branch, taped to the stub of the dead leader, to try to re-establish a vertical top:

There it was in 2011, a stunted little shape of a tree.

In 2012 it worked hard at regrowing a leader, and some progress was made.

My efforts to recreate a leader after this tree was topped in 2011 started to pay off in 2013. The tree grew fuller, and added growth at the top, but no one branch was dominant.

By fall, just as it started to color up, I could see a lot of new growth at the top, and a nice dominant leader. This is one of those trees that needs a leader to grow best. It has to have one branch that grows above the rest and gives the tree shape and form.

Alas. This poor tree keeps losing its top. After a harsh winter in 2014 there were dead branches at the top again, and I had to cut them back. The newly grown slender leader was once again sacrificed.
5/21/14  that lovely slender top died back                                   5/30/14 after lopping off the top again

But going into its fifth year in my garden, it is now an established tree that can take some pruning setbacks.

By the time fall 2014 came around, you could see the top had resprouted, and if those top branches make it through this winter I will cut back the competition so one becomes the clear leader.

I am hoping we are finally done with all the trouble at the top of this little tree. 


  1. Wow! I am impressed with this tree; it has been worth all your efforts, and I hope it does well now. Is the cold killing the top, or is it some type of viral die-back?

    1. Deb I think it is cold killing off the top. Some sources say Stewart monadelpha is zone 6, others say 5 (I am right at the edge of 5 / 6 here, but in a slightly colder microclimate.) I find that young trees at the edge of their range struggle at first, then become cold hardy after several years. Those tender shoots at the top of this little tree are getting cold zapped I think.