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

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 â“’ Michaela at TGE

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8 Replies to “Golden Autumn Beauty & Springtime Silverbells: Our Native and Ever-Graceful Halesia tetraptera…”

  1. Laurrie

    I was interested to see your experience with this tree. I have read much that says how lovely it is, and your post certainly does too. But the only live specimens I have seen (at Blithewold and a younger tree at Longwood) were oddly shaped and awkward, with a very ungainly form. In bloom it must be spectacular as you show, but the rest of the time it seemed too big and oddly spreading, too much for my yard. Maybe I should reconsider, though….

  2. Deb Weyrich-Cody

    Hi Michaela, Didn’t think much of it when the Silverbell pics looked familiar, after all they look a lot like snowdrops and I recognize lots of the plant material you highlight here. But, I must admit I experienced a bit of a jolt when reading of its limited range.

    Darned if I can remember where or when, but I recognize this tree on a visceral level: have witnessed it’s delicate blossoms washed by spring showers, touched its smooth, cool stripey bark… Thank you for a shivery, wonderful bit of deja vu. Hope you have a haunting Hallowe’en! Aoooo! xox :D

  3. Michaela

    @ Laurrie – The key, I believe, is to find a very, very well trained tree. I have recently seen some pruning atrocities involving Halesia. The smaller cultivars can be shaped into multi-stemmed shrubs (lovely). The form will never be architecturally formal. If you like the shape of redbud (Cercis canadensis) or serviceberry (Amelanchier), then you would like a well-pruned Halesia. The key is formative pruning and maintenance. It is very, very worthwhile. I am not fond of the new pink cultivars… nature’s own hand is much more subtle and beautiful here.

    @ Deb – Hello there. The Mountain Silverbell varieties of the species can be found growing wild as far north as New York. Other Halesia are actually threatened (in Tennessee for example). I have seen a silverbell tree growing at UVM. Cold hardiness all depends on the variety. Now, with the name change, I find it very difficult to be sure of which tree is which!

    Happy Halloween to you as well!

  4. Lynda S

    You said to plant with partial shade in the deep south… how deep is deep south? Next question, will they be happy under or on the fringe of giant oaks? I’m in N. Alabama, zone 7.

    Thanks Michaela!

  5. Michaela

    @ Lynda – The primary concerns with this Halesia are 1) moisture and 2) sun. This is a forest understory tree. So, the key is to give it similar conditions in the landscape. Morning sun is generally OK, but hot afternoon sun will scald the foliage. The edge of an oak stand sounds like a good place for sun protection, but sometimes the soil beneath oaks can be quite dry. But if the soil retains moisture —or you can provide them with good mulch— then the trees should do fine. You are right on the southern edge of this tree’s range. I would talk to a good, local nursery that specializes native plants. See what they think. Also, you could check with your county extension service, a local college or forester.

    xo Michaela

  6. peg leeco

    OH!Those are lovely trees.Now I WANT one. Not much room here that isn’t wind beaten in winter,so I guess maybe I could recommend to my daughter for her home in Saratoga. Do deer eat them??

  7. Michaela

    @ Peg – Hi there. Yes, they are lovely indeed. You know, I live near 1850′ on what can only be described as a windswept hilltop. The wind isn’t bothering Carolina silverbell at all (clearly). But yes, the truth is, deer will browse almost anything. I wouldn’t call this a deer magnet, but they will nibble the branches. And if starved, deer will destroy anything in their path.

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