Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Silky Camellia - Stewartia malacodendron   L.
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Section 6 » Order Theales » Family Theaceae
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AuthorL.
DistributionScattered over most of the Coastal Plain, particularly from the southeastern coastal counties and extending northward in a narrow band near the Suffolk Scarp (western ends of both Albemarle and Pamlico sounds) to Hertford and Pasquotank counties. Specimen records from the Piedmont and Mountains are likely misidentifications of S. ovata, if not planted or escaped individuals. The Richmond County specimen is from the lowermost Piedmont, Hitchcock Creek 0.7 mile from Pee Dee River.

This is a Southern species, mainly of the Coastal Plain, from southeastern VA to northwestern FL and extreme eastern TX. It is not known from TN or most of AR.
AbundanceRare to locally uncommon in the Coastal Plain; apparent no valid natural occurrences west of the Coastal Plain. Though not a Watch List species, it is scarce (S3 in NC) and can be hard to find without going to known locations.
HabitatThis species favors rich soil, in hardwood forests. It is most frequent on floodplain “islands” – slightly raised ground in floodplains that seldom flood and are dominated by American Beech (Fagus grandifolia). It is also found over high pH soils, such as over marl, in mesic to rich hardwood forests on flats. Farther inland it likely is found in Basic Mesic Forests or very rich Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forests.
PhenologyBlooms in May and June, and fruits in September and October. Sadly, the species flowers infrequently in deep shade; light gaps are often needed for flowering.
IdentificationThis is a relatively poorly known species to biologists due to its scarcity; it is a large deciduous shrub, rarely a small tree, growing to about 10-15’ tall. It has a characteristic “layered” look due to a horizontal branching pattern. The alternate leaves are elliptical and rather “standard-looking”, being 3-4” long. However, Stewartia leaves, though entire (to vaguely minutely toothed), have distinctive ciliate margins that can be seen by looking at a leaf edge against the sky. In fall, Stewartia leaves turn purple. If found in bloom, this is one of the most spectacular of our shrubs. The flowers are very large, with the five white petals being 3-4” across, and the stamens are purple, rarely seen in the plant world and conspicuous against the white petals; this species has the styles united. Large capsules can be seen in fall. Unfortunately, most of the time you run into a Stewartia individual it will not be in bloom, and in fact it may have no reproductive parts. Use the layered look of branches and the ciliate-margined leaves to identify it.
Taxonomic CommentsAt times, formerly spelled as Stuartia, and also occasionally spelled as malachodendron.

Other Common Name(s)Virginia Stewartia, Silky Stewartia
State RankS3
Global RankG4
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