I’m a slow shopper. It takes me ten minutes to pick out five apples at the grocery store.
Now I’m trying to choose a tree for the parking strip, and that’s a major decision. I’ll have to live with it every day, you know?
Persian ironwood, or Persian parrotia (Parrotia persica), is on my shortlist, and I’m weighing the pros and cons. Do you know it?
Tops in fall color… or just meh
Parrotia is a small(ish) specimen tree in the witch hazel family. Like some other Hamamelidaceae members (witch hazels, fothergilla,) it’s known for its stellar fall color.
So here’s the thing. Parrotia can have psychedelic fall color.
It can be rich and bold.
Or more pastel, like rainbow sherbet.
But, unfortunately, it often just turns butterscotch-yellow. Which is nice, but once you’ve seen what the plant can do, you will want more than yellow.
You have to choose your plant in the fall to be sure what you’re getting. Even then, the color can vary year-to-year on the same plant.
Here’s the same plant as the one above in a different year (and a couple weeks earlier in the season).
Persian ironwood blooms in late winter. Back in southwest Ohio, I would look for it to start around the first week of March, about the same time as red maple and cornelian cherry dogwood begin.
I assume it starts even earlier here in Portland, though I haven’t kept records. This year we’re behind schedule, so it’s hard to say when the average start time is.
The dark brown, brushed-suede bud casings peel back to reveal the small flowers. The blooms have no petals.
The modest show is put on by waxy, licorice-red stamens shaped like slivered almonds.
The show really is modest.
Some years in the Midwest the tree doesn’t bloom at all. That’s in zone 6. Parrotia flowers are probably more reliable here in zone 8b.
But even in a good year, the blossoms are tiny, and the color recedes.
On the other hand, what else is going on in early March? There isn’t much competition, and my flower-starved eyes are hungry for any harbinger of spring they can find.
The flowers eventually expand, but the color fades.
Parrotia bark exfoliates in jigsaw puzzle–piece patches in time.
Some trees are spectacular, though often the claims about parrotia’s incredible four-season patchwork bark are overblown.
It takes forever for the process to start, and then some trees just aren’t as flaky as others. This one isn’t too shabby, but it’s the showiest section of an extremely old tree.
What’s with the name?
You may guess that parrotia was named for its colorful, parrot-like fall foliage. It was actually named after John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt Parrot.
Er, I mean Johann Jacob Friedrich Wilhelm Parrot. Friedrich “Fritz” Parrot was a German physician, physicist, naturalist, and mountaineer. He was the first westerner to climb Mt. Ararat, in what is now Turkey, in 1829.
Mt. Ararat was supposedly where Noah’s boat perched after the Flood. However, Parrot found no evidence of it.
Persica refers to Persia. Parrotia hails from northern Iran, where it is endemic (only found in that small area).
A streetwise city tree
Parrotia seemed to me to be a connoisseur plant when I lived in the Midwest. It wasn’t very common, but those who knew their plants had one, and they gave it a honored spot in the garden.
So I was surprised when I came to Portland and saw parrotias everywhere—most notably, used as a street tree all around town.
I didn’t realize it was such a tough tree. Indeed, it does handle harsh city growing conditions. The Society of Municipal Arborists named Parrotia persica ‘Vanessa’, a narrow form, their pick for 2014 Urban Tree of the Year.
It makes sense, after all, that a tree from Iran would be drought tolerant, but I found an interesting article from the Arnoldia by Robert Nicholson that described parrotia’s native habitat in some depth, and it wasn’t what I expected.
Nicholson said that parrotia inhabits the rainy side of the Alborz Mountains in Iran, a region that can receive 80 inches of rain per year!
The most that rainy Portland gets is 60 inches in the western hills. Lowland areas receive more like 40 inches per year on average.
To get 80 inches of rain, you’d have to go to the coast, and actually, Nicholson compares parrotia’s homeland climate to that of the northern California coast. The spring is dry, he says, and fall and winter are rainy.
So, it’s probably happiest in a northern California coastal climate, but this is still one tough plant.
Not such a small tree
Parrotia is often described as a small tree, but it’s more accurate to say that it remains a small tree for a long time.
It can eventually get quite large, like this incredible plant at the Elk Rock Garden at the Bishop’s Close in Portland. (This is the tree from the bark photo.)
I’m guessing it’s 45 feet tall. Look at how tiny the patio furniture is next to it!
How to grow parrotia
Plant it green side up. This is a forgiving tree that anyone can grow. It is hardy to at least zone 5 (-20°F).
Make sure your soil has decent drainage.
Full sun will coax the richest fall color from the foliage, though part shade is acceptable.
Pests and diseases are generally of no concern, although in the East, Japanese beetles can be troublesome. Japanese beetles have only just arrived in Portland. Argh.
Although Persian ironwood is considered a slow grower, Michael Dirr, in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, indicates that trees can put on more than two-and-a-half feet of growth per year with proper feeding and irrigation.
What do you think?
Do you grow this tree or any of its cultivars? Do you love it, or do you have buyer’s remorse? Are you mad that I put that John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt song in your head? Please tell me in the comments!