Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica): Love This Tree or Buyer’s Remorse?

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Parrotia persica leafing out in late March.

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).

Licorice-red flowers

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.

Patchwork bark

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.

And persica?

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!


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27 Responses

  1. Brad Bonham
    Brad Bonham at | | Reply

    Love it ’cause it’s _not_ predictable 😉 Got a straight species from Lagergren 15 – 20 yrs ago and I don’t think any two Fall displays have been the same — giving me something to anticipate then ponder each year as I’m working on the final landscape chores.

    The variability in bloom is another opportunity for pondering when out working on the earliest landscape chores — like H. vernalis & ‘Dawn’ viburnum, a true reward for being out in the cold, but not something the neighbors will ever notice. Mine didn’t bloom much this year, but I ran across one at Spring Grove that had several branches (but _not_ a majority) in heavy bloom.

    City of Cincinnati is planting these curbside as well.

  2. Tami
    Tami at | | Reply

    I got one from Forestfarm (so it was pretty small) about 7 or 8 years ago for full sun in my central IN yard. Until last year, it pretty much just sat there. It does get stressed by drought and its smallest branches tend to die back when we don’t have rain for a month or more. But last year we had ample rain throughout the season and that little bush put on about 2′ of growth! This year, however, I’m going to need to cut off all but one its numerous trunks and turn it into a proper TREE. Back to tinyville for us . . .

  3. Laurrie
    Laurrie at | | Reply

    I have ‘Vanessa’ in my garden and it grows well (northern Connecticut zone 5). A fast grower for me, at least in its youth. Fall color is completely different each year, sometimes none, sometimes russet, another year yellow. Very fickle. I never see them planted here, so it’s interesting to know they are common street trees in the northwest. Thanks for all this info on it — I’ve had a hard time finding much about this unusual (for here) tree.

  4. Scott W Weber
    Scott W Weber at | | Reply

    Even though I still kinda wish we’d planted Paperbark Maples, I do like our Ironwoods. I don’t think they are the MOST amazing trees, but they are really tough now that they’re established (water well for the first 2-3 years). The flowers are not even worth mentioning, if you ask me. The fall color of ours is consistently peachy-yellow…but our neighbor across the street, who planted his at the same time, always has more reddish-burgundy coloring. Still, they are better than any of the oaks in our neighborhood, which mostly turn a dull yellow-brown…so I can’t complain! I do really like the branching…it’s very sinuous and elegant…especially nice in winter. Overall, I do think it’s a good street tree, tough, and with good 4-season interet.

  5. Patricia Cunningham
    Patricia Cunningham at | | Reply

    I’ve had my eye on that tree for years. It’s fabulous. I say, get it. Then I can enjoy it when I visit.

  6. Chad
    Chad at | | Reply

    Overall love it for all the reasons stated.

    – As stated not a small tree for long. We had 3 spaced 40′ apart when 20 years ago. Now down to 3 and soon to go to 1. In Wisely (UK) theirs, probably over 100 years old, a pretty massive tree.
    – Architecture- 2 of ours are (were) almost droopy, 1 is vase shaped (really like this form) and 1 sort of has a spiraling 30′ tall leader. Don’t really want to droopier ones by a patio or on the road as you will have to keep pruning it up to keep out of the way.
    – Seedlings. Not every year but in many years a lot of seedlings will germinate
    under the tree and need to be removed… at least where gets irrigation.
    – Juvenility- As with many oaks, in our Parrotia the closer to the crown the more juvenile. You see this with young oaks where the outer leaves turn color and drop long before the inner leaves. In the worst case scenario, the inner leaves hold on green while the outer turn and drop so you don’t get that all over color. After 20 years seems to coming around to pretty uniform color change.

    Would plant again….

  7. Catherine Burke
    Catherine Burke at | | Reply

    Roger Gossler says it gets to be 80′ x 80′. I also was under the assumption that it was a “small ” tree and planted one about 10 years ago in an area of my yard that has its size limitations. Oops. I should have consulted with Roger first. I don’t have the heart to remove it so will wait and see what happens.

  8. rickii
    rickii at | | Reply

    It’s a handsome tree but seems to have some drawbacks. I think I’d lean toward a Katsura instead. Interested to see what you decide.

  9. Lance Wright
    Lance Wright at | | Reply

    I have always loved this tree, er…at least since I was introduced to the one at Elk Rock Garden over 30 years ago. I have one today that is close to that age, a seedling from that same tree, that unfortunately is limited to the butterscotch yellow fall color you describe. Mine is maybe around 25′ tall. The flowers are often present by mid Feb., sometimes earlier, though later this year and often go unnoticed until we have one of those clear blue sky days when they stand out. My biggest issue with this is its tendency to sucker and sprout, a condition also that seems to vary from seedling to seedling. I remove them every year and am careful to limit my pruning of it so as not to stimulate more sprouting. Apparently ‘Vanessa’, the more upright clone, is not so ready to sprout, though I do see these occasionally in SE planted as street trees that do sucker and, often as not, the owners neglect to remove them. People also tend to not train these up, which is not unique to Parrotia, but because Parrotia can get relatively large over time, their trunks and main scaffold limbs can get quite large. If these remain low on the trunk this can become an issue as the whole tree gains girth. Such heavy physical mass at and around eye level is uncomfortable for pedestrians and such trees have considerably more ‘psychological’ mass than physical and people move away from them. But, still I love this tree, it is the oldest and largest tree in my garden…and, it’s staying.

  10. Lance Sjogren
    Lance Sjogren at | | Reply

    I live in Vancouver WA and planted a couple of Persian Ironwoods in my yard about 3 years ago. As to fall foliage, my experience matches what I have read from other people- the colors vary year to year. Mine haven’t bloomed at all, however, except for one tiny flower I noticed a couple weeks ago on one of the trees. I figured it might be a similar situation to lilacs which seem to require cold winters in order to bloom well. I noticed last spring the blooms on the lilacs in Eastern Oregon/Washington were spectacular, while mine were just so-so.

    Does anyone know what conditions they require to bloom? Like most any plant I imagine I will have better luck getting blooms on them once they have gotten older and bigger. But mine are 6-7 feet tall and I was hoping they would have bloomed more by now.

  11. Chel
    Chel at | | Reply

    I think Parrotia trees are stunning!
    I wish I could have one in my garden…

  12. Aspirafoglie a motore
    Aspirafoglie a motore at | | Reply

    Well, I think I never seen a Parrotia trees in my life but I think the one on your photos are really beautiful… I also really like how they can be unpredictable!

  13. Wall planter
    Wall planter at | | Reply

    It can be rich and bold.

  14. Joan Tsibouris
    Joan Tsibouris at | | Reply

    When I saw this discussion, I had to add my two cents worth from Zone 5/6. About 20 years ago I read about parrotias and decided to order one. After I planted it, I found out that someone who ran one of our public parks had planted one at his home in north Columbus several years before I did (in Gahanna just east of Columbus). He was pleased with it, so that was a comfort to me. I agree completely about the variability of this beautiful tree! If I had kept notes on it, I could perhaps link its variability to specific reasons, but I didn’t expect to witness changes over the years. The ones that stand out are: one winter, it held its leaves until the following spring. I was afraid it was signaling its death, but no, it leafed out as usual in the spring. Another year the fall leaves on the shady side stayed green, which the sunny side turned rich gold. Fall colors vary greatly from year to year and often last a long time before dropping.

    The foliage is unblemished, very thick and somewhat glossy. When I bought this tree, I was expecting a small tree, may 20 feet or so, but it is much taller and wider. It has done well in Central Ohio clay! (I lost two katsura trees in that soil, one quickly and the other after two years or so.)

  15. Lindy Allinson
    Lindy Allinson at | | Reply

    Hi, we live in Australia…down the bottom where weather can be both extremely hot, and very cold. Hubby & I just bought a Persian Witch Hazel the other day. Our nieces planted it with him and we’re all now excitedly waiting to see what happens in the years ahead. Our little town (Steiglitz, in the state of Victoria) is a historic town. The last in Victoria without electricity, sewerage or town water. So irrigation is off our rain water tanks. Soil? Well, that’s almost rarer then rain…lol. Though our garden beds have taken nearly 25 years in the making, and seem offer all plants a good, rich base from which to thrive. Loved all your info. on what we can expect. It was a random, spontaneous choice at the time, so thankful for your site, which has eased my worries. Have a great day! With warm smiles from Steiglitz

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