Thursday, June 27, 2013

Trip to Fires Creek in search of the Mountain Camellia (Stewartia ovata) with Jack Johnston by Jean Hunnicutt with photos by Karen Lawrence

June 20, 2013

The Fires Creek trip had its ups and downs (pun intended).

Jack had warned us the Stewartias might not be in bloom.  They almost always bloom on the summer solstice, but nearly everything has bloomed late this year.  Sure enough, we saw only buds.
There were logistical challenges:  
  • A bridge out near the entrance to the park caused a long detour/rerouting.  
  • The creek was more swift than usual and not appropriate for the "wading" we'd expected.  Many in the group did make the first crossing but other crossings were too swift.  
  • There were also the challenges of how to shuttle people in a limited number of cars to move us to trails where we might access Stewartias without crossing the creek.

Through it all, Jack remained calm and organized and told us about Stewartias.

They are named for the Earl of Stuart, friend of King George III (never mind the spelling).
Members of the Tea family, there are 2 Stewartias native to the US:  
  • Stewartia malacodendron, Silky Camellia which occurs mainly on the coastal plain but is hardy in our area.
  • Stewartia ovata, Mountain Camellia which occurs mainly in the Appalachians and Piedmont.
Other Stewartias:  1 Korean, 2 Japanese, 3 Chinese.
Relatives are Franklinia, Gordonia and a hybrid of the two called Gordlinia.

Seeds take 2 to 3 years to germinate, and growth during the first year is only about 2 inches.

Jack thinks the root systems of some Stewartia may be as much 500 years old.  New sprouts could live for 80 to 100 years, to be replaced by newer ones.
The largest grow on stream banks which provide moisture and gaps in the tree canopy to let in light.  Rocky bluffs also provide canopy gap for light and are good habitat for Stewartias. Trees that like the same conditions are maple, sourwood, pine and rhododendron.

As Karen’s photos show, the leaves are not very distinct.  They are very hard to distinguish among other trees. The ridged, furrowed bark is more distinct. But it’s the beautiful blooms that really set them apart.

Jack is passionate about Stewartias, and his passion is infectious.  We all had a wonderful day and gained a new appreciation of our Mountain Camellia.  I vote that we plan another trip next year – on the summer solstice.

A final note:  Jack’s Virginia friends are hunters of Champion (i.e. largest) Trees.  While they were in our area, they identified 14 new Champions – including a Stewartia Ovata at Fires Creek!