Remembering My Friend’s Favorite Tree

March 8, 2020

I lost one of my closest friends. Stephen Schuckman was not just my friend, he was a mentor and at one time my boss. Steve’s entire life, it seemed, revolved around the outdoors and agriculture was a huge part of that. Whether it was his apiary skills, hiking in the Adirondack Mountains, managing Metropolitan Plant Exchange in West Orange, cofounder of the Montclair Farmer’s Market or acting as the horticultural manager for The Van Vleck House & Gardens, Steve’s passions for agriculture were obvious. A certified New Jersey arborist and continuing education instructor, at Rutgers University, Steve often lectured on pruning and loved his trees! Our daily morning discussions would often begin with current events, but quickly turned to discussing our industry. At the heart of nearly every conversation was our shared tree centric world. Steve’s determination to use less conventional trees for municipal tree plantings, seeking out new and exciting cultivars, was refreshing. And a tree at the top of his list, perhaps impressing him the most, was one native to Iran and the Caucasus.

Persian Parrotia, Persian Ironwood or Irontree, Parrotia persica, is one of the” toughest” trees on the planet. A quintessential tree with an abundance of attributes, this smaller-statured tree has remarkable pest and disease resistance. Typical landscape stature is about 20-40 feet tall by 15 to 30 feet wide. Certainly a formidable candidate for residential gardens, Parrotia is typically seen as a small to medium tree with an oval-rounded crown. Early spring, as its leaves unfold, reddish-purple hues emerge on its leaves, changing to a dark green in the warmer months. As fall approaches, rich shades of yellow, crimson, rose-pink, purple and maroon are expected, but not guaranteed. Leaves reminiscent of witchhazel and beech, complete with wavy, scalloped edges, provide great texture, particularly when paired against conifers. The maturing bark of Persian Parrotia develops exfoliating gray, green and white segments or patchwork. Mosaic patterns reminding many who adore conifers of Lacebark Pine, Pinus bungeana. The flowers of Irontree develop before its leaves emerge, in late February and March. A harbinger of spring, one can expect small, curious red-anthered, spidery flowers with slight yellow markings. Flowers without petals (apetalous), you have to look closely for these tiny gems or you could miss them. Regardless, it’s an attribute worth looking for. The flowers, for me, are a sort of barometer that Spring is almost here while also reminding me of my friendship with Steve.

“The genus name honors Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Parrot (1792-1841), a German naturalist and traveler who climbed Mount Ararat in 1834” (Missouri Botanical Garden). Classified in the witchhazel family, I have read reports of the genus name being inspired by colorful tropical birds, readings I find comical. Nonetheless, Parrotia appreciates full to partial sun and is “hardy” in zones (4)5-8. Well rooted specimens seem to survive drought, heat, wind, cold, clay soil types; even being embedded in parking lots surrounded by concrete and asphalt.

Even though Parrotia persica, in its own right, will not overwhelm most residential landscapes, there are a handful of noteworthy cultivars today whose stature is more svelte. ‘Persian Spire’ is a columnar to upright-oval form that would fit nicely into snug areas where a strong vertical line is called for. ‘Ruby Vase’, while described with the same outline, academically, is a bit more rotund. ‘Vanessa’, the cultivar we chose for our personal garden, hails from Holland, is another upright form, but with more density. Finally, ‘Burgundy’ has its young foliage emerging purple and its fall color holding deep burgundy tones, although it is closer in size to the species.

Perhaps it’s the anniversary of my friends passing this month that prompted me to write about Parrotia? Perhaps it’s the flowers forming outside our upstairs bathroom window right now that I have been steadfastly watching for. “In the face of climate change, disappearing global biodiversity, and an increasingly urban human population, striving for diversity in the trees species we chose to plant on our streets and in our parks and gardens will become ever more important. A richer, more diverse collection of trees around us is healthier (better able to avoid plagues of insects and diseases), more diverting to the eye, and more refreshing to the spirit. We can all do our part to learn more about and plant underused, undeservedly rare trees, like Persian Ironwood” (Matt Ritter: Professor in the Biology Department and director of the Plant Conservatory at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo). Mr. Ritter’s words, to this writer, are as articulate as they are poignant, posing the argument to use all types of plants, from around the globe responsibly, in our landscapes.

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