Golden Autumn Beauty & Springtime Silverbells: Our Native and Ever-Graceful Halesia tetraptera…

October 25th, 2010 § 8 comments § permalink

The Golden Leaves and Rusty Drupes of North American Native Halesia tetraptera, (Carolina Silverbell or Mountain Silverbell)

Carolina silverbell. With a name like that, you’d invite her into your garden for the poetry alone, wouldn’t you? I did. Well, sort-of. Although I was familiar with the silverbell clan, I wasn’t really sure of which Halesia I was getting when I tied and bound the branches of two glorious specimens three years ago, and rolled them in back of my trailer. It was late autumn, the leaves had long-ago fallen, and summer sunlight had faded my nurseryman’s chicken-scratch Latin from the tag. Some silverbell species are hardier than others, and some grow larger than others, they are notoriously difficult to differentiate, and the nomenclature and taxonomy of this woody plant have been further confused by a recent name-change (Halesia carolina is now referred to as Halesia tetraptera). I wanted Carolina silverbell, which is a small, understory tree native to the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States. Normally, I’m quite particular about confirming the identity of anything I plant in my garden. But, this was an end-of-season sale at a nursery an hour south of my home, and I only had the trailer for the day. I couldn’t resist…

The graceful form of Halesia tetraptera can be sculpted and enhanced with annual, late-spring pruning

As it turns out —in this case— my impulsive decision was a very good one! Three years on, two lovely Carolina silverbell trees are slowly filling out on either side my studio entryway; their rich, yellow-green foliage providing dappled shade for summertime lunches on the terrace. And now –in late October— the leaves are shifting from gorgeous chartreuse to brilliant gold. In addition to the beautiful autumn color, delightfully curious orange-tinted drupes (pictured above) decorate the Carolina silverbell in fall. Even after the foliage and seed pods have fallen, the striped bark (much like that of Moosewood, Acer pensylvanicum) remains an interesting feature…

Halesia tetraptera, striped bark and golden autumn foliage – both stunning against the dark siding of buildings or conifers (particularly Hemlock – Tsuga canadensis)

But as beautiful as Carolina silverbell is in autumn, I have to admit that the reason I sought this tree out had far more to do with her incredible springtime show. In mid-May (usually just before the dogwood flowers here in my VT garden) the entire tree is covered in glorious blush-tinted, white blossoms. The ‘Silver Sisters’, as I call them, are a most breathtaking sight -particularly on a rainy day (see close-up of blossoms photo below). Entering and exiting my studio when the Halesia tetraptera sisters are blooming, is like stepping through a poem…

It’s easy to see why this tree is commonly called the Silverbell. The beautiful blossoms of Halesia tetraptera emerge in mid-spring, usually just before flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)

Because of the variability in size and shape, some silverbell species are grown as multi-stemmed shrubs, and some are pruned and trained as single-trunk trees. In its true, native-range (West Virginia to Central Florida and west to Texas USDA zone 4/5-8/9) silverbell, particularly the ‘Mountain Silverbell’ (once known as Halesia monticola, now also grouped as H. tetraptera var. monticola) can become a medium-sized, understory tree reaching 30 to 40 feet (in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, some native, mountain silverbell trees have been recorded at up to 80′ tall). When grown in the northern-most range of its hardiness zone, (USDA 4/5) Halesia tetraptera will remain smaller. I expect the mature size of my silverbell sisters to reach no more than 25-30′ here in the Green Mountains of Vermont. All silverbells, large or small, prefer cool, moist, acidic soil and protected sites (I have my silverbells planted on the eastern side of the studio). If grown in the deep south, be sure to protect silverbell trees from the hot afternoon sun and mulch the root-zone to retain moisture.

Silver in springtime and gold in fall, Halesia tetraptera remains a rare and subtle jewel in gardens. She’s not flashy, like a common, hot-pink crabapple (Oh no, we are far too elegant for that!), and it does take a bit of  time for her to settle in. But as is often the case with native trees, patience pays dividends in the garden. To know her is to love her. Carolina silverbell… She’s a true, four-season beauty.

Article and photographs ⓒ Michaela at TGE

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