Saving The Best For Last

Persian ironwoodMy designing life may have been consumed with finishing up as many of our landscape projects as possible, and dealing with the demands of our holiday and winter container work, but the garden has never been far from my mind. Every day, as I am loading up the corgis in the morning, or preparing for them to disembark in the evening, I see what is pictured above. This antique French pot from Biot sits on an Italian terracotta socle, which in turn sits on top of the substantial stump of a maple that succumbed years ago to girdling roots. It was made in the early part of the 20th century by a French pottery that is no longer. I love the shape, the color, and the history. The pale yellow glazed rim finishes the hand thrown raw clay body. There is ample evidence of its age.  Moss spores have infiltrated the surface, and taken up residence. I have never felt the need to plant this pot, as I doubt a planting would make it look any better than it already does.  It pleases me to see this pot every day, in every season, year after year. In the summer, the ground is covered by Sum and Substance hostas, and ferns. In mid-November, the pot is embraced by a pair of Parrotias, just coming into fall color.

persian ironwoodThis essay is not really about my old garden pot. It is about a not so well known and underused small growing tree that saves the best of its beauty for the last of the year. Parrotia persica is the only species in the genus Parrotia. The tree matures at about 25′ tall, and as wide. My group of four trees has been in the ground for close to 20 years, and might be 18 feet tall.  Suffice it to say they grow very slowly. It is irregular growing, and branches out quite close to the ground.  Parrotia persica is one of only two only species in the genus Parrotia. The loosely oblong leaves are quite reminiscent of hamamelis, or witch hazel.  This is not surprising, as they are in the same family. Those leaves have a purple/copper colored  tinge when they emerge in the spring, which matures to a deep  rich green in summer.

persian ironwoodPersian ironwood is reputed to have some of the best fall color of any deciduous tree. A single tree may have red, yellow, orange and maroon colored leaves at the same time. Only once in a while do I get fall color like this.  In most years, the leaves turn yellow and peach, long after many other trees have already dropped their leaves. By the time they begin turning color, all of the hostas and ferns that grow in proximity to them have gone dormant.

persian ironwoodThe branch structure and exfoliating bark endows this tree with considerable winter interest.  The old bark sheds in a patchy way, revealing the new bark underneath. It is not uncommon for the bark on my trees to have green, yellow, peach, gray and brown coloration all at the same time. The bark does not shed in huge sheets like the London Plane.  I rarely notice the flaking bark on the ground. The literature says that parrotias bloom in very early spring, much like witch hazel.  Clusters of red stamens are surrounded by brownish bracts; the flowers do not have much in the way of petals.  The bloom is subtle.  That said, I have never seen my parrotias bloom.

parrotia persicaAt the end of December, the trees still had most of their leaves.  The yellow fall color had matured to a rich coppery color. Though the landscape and garden has gone dormant, this spot is still beautiful in color and texture. These leaves will hold most of the winter, no matter how tough that winter might be.  Some leaves will last long enough to be pushed off by the new leaves emerge in the spring. Should you have a winter season, a parrotia is at its most beautiful at that time of year. The picea abies “mucronata”, or dwarf Norway spruces, and the parrotias completely screen this part of my garden from the street.

The old pot has a sheltered place to be.

persian ironwoodAs a result of the horrifically cold winter we had three years ago, I did have twig die back in the midsection of this tree. That damage is easy to see in the picture above. I would have thought the damage from the cold and wind would have been most prominent at the top of the tree. I cannot explain what happened, but the trees have begun to recover. I have never seen any damage from insects or disease, and I do nothing to look after it besides watering the hostas around them during dry spells. Parrotias are remarkably healthy and just about maintenance free.


persian ironwoodI may have snow and cold for the next few months, but I will also have this parrotia, and three others, all decked out for winter.
















  1. Cathy Peterson says

    The pot is a beautiful garden sculpture. You are a great garden designer or shall I say garden artist.

  2. Show us the corgis please!

  3. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Anita, there are plenty of pictures of those dogs on this blog! all the best, Deborah

  4. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Cathy, thank you. It is a gorgeous pot,isn’t it? best, Deborah

  5. Thank you for the wonderful essay on Parrotia. I purchased on years ago during a tour of Iseli at the Far West show. We have since moved to another property, and that is the tree I miss most. Unfortunately they didn’t sell well as a retail item for us, but I may revisit that plant and amp up our customer’s awareness of its’ attributes. It really is a nearly perfect solution for smaller properties.

  6. Elizabeth Stone says

    I observe my Parrotia every day also, situated beside my driveway on the corner of a border separating us from our neighbor. I share many of your observations, and especially enjoy the fall-winter display. The incredible bark is interesting as it is so visible on lower branches as well as the trunk. Such a durable tree with no problems in Massachusetts as well. It has carried a heavy snow load with few broken branches.

  7. Annie Gruber says

    These trees are gorgeous! I am so happy to learn about them. The lower growth is unusual and amazing. Thankyou for always sharing your unique observations.

  8. Marguerite says

    Deborah, this is a beautiful landscape indeed, and thank you for reminding us to just “Look” and create scenes to look at and delight us in on our daily routes. One question though, I know with much smaller planted terra cotta pots, even glazed ones, as winter comes, i have had to take dirt out and not leave them out to be sure they don’t freeze/ thaw . In the past I have had some pot-burst casualties , and a friend has had some “flake -off” of parts of pots. Is your stunning large pot thick walled enough to not be subject to the vagaries of temperature? Under what conditions is terra cotta safe to put in the landscape in winter conditions? Thanks in advance, Marguerite in CT

  9. The pot is beautiful and a gorgeous shape. But if it is clay, how does it make it through a Detroit winter year after year even with nothing in it? I would think it would chip away bit by bit. I would be afraid to leave it uncovered. Great that it just keeps going.

  10. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Carol and Marguerite, hand made/ hand thrown terracotta such as this is fired at a much higher temperature, and for a longer period than machine made terracotta. I would not leave machine made terracotta outdoors in my zone. It had been outdoors for a number of winters. The glaze has popped off on the rim in a few places, but those spots are small. I have hard rubber spacers between the pot and the socle, so no water can collect at the base of the pot, and freeze. Handmade French glazed terracotta is thick. The glaze will pop off, but I have never seen a pot break. We also carry glazed stoneware pots. That clay has a much higher mineral content than terracotta. Stoneware pots are frost proof. All of this said, the Michigan winters can be beyond terrible. I had a client with an antique cast iron trough that developed a long crack. The rough surface of the interior trapped water that cracked the iron when it froze. Anything goes. I am taking a risk. But this pot has been out a number of years without any problem. all the best, Deborah

  11. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Rebecca, I bought my 4 trees from a nursery where I shop for plants for my landscape clients. They sold them to me for a little more than nothing. They had had them quite a while, and had not sold them. This nursery no longer grows them. I know of no other parrotias besides mine. It is a great small tree in just about every respect. I have read about the columnar cultivar “Vanessa”, but I have never seen it for sale in my area. best regards, Deborah

  12. Dear Debbie – I do look forward to your posts. The pot is exquisite and elegant in simplicity. DJ

  13. What a beautiful vignette….the graceful stone pot, the coppery leaves of the parrotia, and the dark green spruce. Even better with snow.

  14. Thank you for this photo reminding us to plan for winter interest in our gardens-I have just gotten new hardscapes and now will be redoing much of my landscaping…this is a beautiful scene, and I am glad you get to enjoy it every day.

  15. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Mary, so nice to hear from you. best, Deborah

  16. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Anne, this is a spot I see every day. This is my favorite time of year for it. best, Deborah

  17. Deborah – Thank you for the wonderful introduction to an interesting plant. We recently built a new house on my parent’s old property and as the builder marked trees that “needed” to come down I questioned the removal of a tree at the edge that I didn’t know but I felt was sizable and interesting. In fact, I quoted a past blog of yours that spoke about saving large trees on a property for the grace and permanence that they bring. After reading your article, I believe the tree we saved is a parrotia! I will search for the flowers later this winter.
    Thank you for continuing to educate and inspire us all!

  18. Wow, I thought my parrotia was at the cold end of the possible range here in Virginia – I guess not! It as a lucky impulse purchase from a road side stand a ways south… isn’t getting big but its not dying back either, and it DOES bloom a tiny bit each year so far (knock on wood! This winter is getting very cold!). Thanks for sharing your pictures.


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