In Search of Stewartia

Up until a little over a week ago, I had no idea there were native representatives of the family Theaceae other than Franklinia alatamaha in North America. Dr. Mark Whitten was looking for a tree in order to obtain some genetic samples. He showed me a picture and my jaw just about hit the ground.

Fast forward a few days. A friend sent me an email regarding a hike to see Stewartia in the wild. This was an opportunity I was not about to miss. We took the day off and headed into the mountains. We met up with a small group of people whose goal that day was to bask in the glory of the mountain camellia (Stewartia ovata). We were led by local Stewartia expert, Jack Johnston (

It wasn't long before we had our first sighting. Just off the trail leading to a campsite was a spindly looking tree that stood roughly 15 feet in height. Without flowers I don't know if I could pick it out of a lineup. Lucky for us, this small tree was covered in large white blossoms. For the second time that week my jaw had to be pulled up off the ground.

The blossoms were absolutely stunning. About the diameter of a softball and with bright white petals, they are impossible to miss. At the center of each flower is a dense cluster of filaments supporting bright yellow anthers. The filaments themselves are quite attractive. They range in color from pure white to deep purple. What's more, any given tree can sport multiple flowers of with different filament colors.

The color did not seem to influence pollination whatsoever. Each flower we saw was crawling with solitary bees. To be fair though, very little research has been done on this species. Aside from some genetic work, the ecology of the mountain camellia remains a bit of a mystery. What we do know about this tree is that it has its roots in Asia. North America is lucky to have two of the 18 - 20 species of Stewartia. The rest are spread around the Asian continent. North America's Stewartia serve as a reminder of an ancient geologic connection North America and Asia once shared.

By the end of our hike we had lost count of the amount of trees we encountered. Despite their abundance, they are by no means common. Though not technically endangered, their limited distribution and low germination rates make it a sensitive component of the Appalachian flora. With tentative introductions into the horticultural trade, the best way to see this species is in the wild. Look for it growing in cool, shaded edge habitats, most often near mountain streams and rivers. It is a sight you will never forget.


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