Contributed by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

3rd Earl of Bute by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The genus name Stewartia honors John Stuart, an 18th century Scottish nobleman and passionate botanist, who had imported what we now call “Stewartia malacodendron (Virginia stewartia)” into his personal London garden. The genus name Stewartia was created by Linnaeus based on a drawing sent to him by a foremost European botanical artist, Georg Dionysios Ehret, whose rendition of Stuart’s name on the label was unclear.

Stewartia rostrata (beaked stewartia)-flower with ruffled white petals showing a pink blush. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.

Despite attempts (over centuries!) to correct the mistake and to change the name to Stuartia, the botanical name remains Stewartia. The International Rules of Botanical Nomenclature are strict and, once a plant name has been assigned, the governing body is loathe to change it, possibly even more so with a name assigned by Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, himself.  Historians are not sure whether Linnaeus was subsequently aware of the name discrepancy.

John Stuart rose to be Prime Minister of Great Britain. He aided Princess Augusta as she developed the exotic gardens at Kew Park, later to become Kew Gardens. At least John Stuart’s title as the 3rd Earl to the Isle of Bute is memorialized by a faultlessly spelled genus of palms called Butia. Luckily for Ehret, the originator of this mistake, the plant genus named for him is correctly Latinized as Ehretia!

Stewartia serrata ( stewartia)- early seed capsule with bird-like beak. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.
Stewartia pseudocamellia ( Japanese stewartia)- exfoliating bark.  Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.
Stewartia sinensis (Chinese stewartia)- fallen petals and stamens remain attached. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.

Stewartia is well represented in the Morris Arboretum collection. Most of the specimens are trees native to Asia or cultivars or hybrids thereof:  S. koreana, S. monadelpha, S. pseudocamellia, S. pseudocamellia ‘Ballet’ and ‘Milk and Honey,’ S. rostrata, Stewartia ‘Scarlet Sentinel,’ S. serrata, S. sinensis, and Stewartia x henryae ‘Skyrocket.’ Two are shrubs native to the southeastern

United States, and one is a nativar: S. malacodendron, S.ovata, and S.ovata ‘Inner Light’ that are currently being cared for in the Arboretum’s greenhouse.

Stewartia is a member of the Theaceae, which also includes Camellia sinensis (the source of both green and black tea leaves), so it is not surprising that its flowers are reminiscent of camellia flowers! The flowers peak in late spring/early summer, but these are plants with four-season interest because peeling bark, beaked seed capsules, and bright fall leaf color can also be highlights, depending upon the species. Stewartias can be found throughout the Arboretum.

Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a botanical tour guide and freelance writer.