Louis Raymond experiments in his own gardens like

a mad scientist, searching out plants that most people have

never seen before & figuring out how to make them perform.- The Boston Globe

…Louis Raymond ensures that trees can grow in Brooklyn…

or just about any other place where concrete consumes

the dirt and skyscrapers shield the sunshine.- USA Today


NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.


NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.


New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.


Plant Profiles

A Portal of Columnar Persian Ironwood



Parrotia is the tree to grow when you want four-season interest but no boring maintenance chores.  And—as in this case—if you want to sharpen your skills at "architectural" pruning.  I'm not just clipping my pair of Parrotia into a hedge.  This, folks, is what a young portal looks like.  A Parrotia portal: A pair of columns spanned by a horizontal "lintel" of growth. 


I've chosen the naturally-narrow Parrotia cultivar, 'Vanessa', but for this portal I need growth that's even narrower.  And that means some pruning.  As you can see in the picture below, the Parrotia in an eager grower, with new twigs two or even three feet long by late Summer.




In the picture below, you can see the trees in November, when they're are at the yellow-and-orange peak of their marvelous Fall foliage cycle: High time to get out the clippers. 


My portal is still very much in formation—it's only seven years old, and the Parrotia were just two feet tall at planting—so pruning still needs to be forceful, even radical.  I'm encouraging the Parrotia to branch out as densely as possible, as close to the trunk as possible, not least so that I can clothe (translation: hide) the galvanized pipe thoroughly. 


This, then, is no time for just a haircut.  No time just to take just a little off the top.




Instead, prune close to the bone, I mean the trunk.  You won't have a plucked chicken when you're done, because Parrotia bears foliage right down to the trunk, too.  Even a well-disciplined Parrotia portal retains plenty of leaves.




Two weeks later, and Fall has progressed to its miserable cold-and-rainy phase.  The Parrotia portal is still creditably clothed.




By Winter, though, the branches and trunk will be fully exposed.  One of these years, the bark on my Parrotia will "go adult," and begin flaking off to reveal contrasting layers of color.  No sign of that, yet, though. 




At age seven, Parrotia is still enjoying childhood.




Here's how to grow this exciting four-season tree:


Latin Name

Parrotia persica 'Vanessa'

Common Name

Columnar Persian Ironwood


Hamamelidaceae, the Witch Hazel family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous tree.


Zones 4 - 9


Strongly upright, with almost no trunk before branching begins.  More likely to have just one trunk, unlike the species, which is profusely multi-trunked.

Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

Ten to twelve feet tall, four feet wide.  Growing free-range, ultimately to about thirty feet tall and ten to fifteen feet wide.


Full almost to the ground unless limbed up.  Growth is dense enough for screening but, unless pruned, 'Vanessa' has a nicely-ventilated habit, showing branches and trunk through the foliage. 

Grown for

its foliage:  In Spring and Summer, the pointed green leaves are dignified but not flashy.  By late Summer, even before cool weather motivates most other plants to get going on their Fall foliage, Parrotia leaves have already begun cycling through bronze, crimson, and orange.  By the time the weather's truly Fall-like, Parrotia leaves color their brightest, an exceptional yellow.


its bark:  Parrotia bark "exfoliates" (flakes off) as the tree matures, revealing somewhat darker layers.  The flakes don't adhere to the tree the way they do on paperbark maples or birches; they don't accumulate on the ground, either, now that I think of it.  (No one ever exclaims about a flaky mulch beneath their Parrotia.)  Wherever the flakes wind up, they leave beautiful trunks and branches behind.  My Vanessas are seven years old, which is apparently still too young for exfoliation to begin.  I wait in eagerness.  


its habit: single-trunked and branched to the ground unless limbed up, 'Vanessa' can provide a poplar-like vertical statement, but at a half or a third the height and without the poplar's many insect and disease pests, nor its aggressive and invasive roots.


its vigor: 'Vanessa' is cut from the same bolt of cloth as the Parrotia species.  Growing free-range, 'Vanessa' is trouble-free.    

Flowering season

Spring:  My individual isn't mature enough to flower, yet.  Perhaps it will debut some bloom in 2012.

Color combinations

Parrotia flowers are not showy, and Parrotia leaves are mid-green in warm weather, so this green-leaved tree goes with anything in Spring and Summer.  And in Fall, too:  After the mums and asters are done, color in Fall is really a matter of The More the Merrier; ironwood's brilliant Fall foliage can join in the melee.  And in Winter, the multi-colored bark is, nonetheless, only shades of brown and tan.  In short:  Parrotia goes with anything, and in any season.    

Partner plants

Ironwood's goes-with-anything coloring, medium-sized leaves, naturally elegant branching and, with 'Vanessa', distinct overall form, suggest partnering with low evergreens, dark- or variegated-leaved evergreens, small-leaved broadleaves and, if at all possible, a well-trimmed hedge.  Prostrate plum yews underneath, variegated boxwood at the side, and all backed by a hedge of giant arborvitae.  Add some ferns on the shady side of the Parrotia, and your composition is complete and nourishing year-round. 

Where to use it in your garden

The straight species of Parrotia persica has the multi-trunked habit and mature size of Korean dogwood:  Twenty to thirty feet wide and tall, or even larger.  And with almost no trunk, there's little clearance under the canopy even for underplanting, let alone human passage.  'Vanessa' doesn't have any taller a trunk, but its spread is a quarter to a third as wide.  Even compact gardens can welcome a free-range 'Vanessa', and because it's much less likely to be multi-trunked, you can limb it up for even greater ground-level clearance. 


I'm a firm believer that if something is worth doing once, it's even more worth doing four times.  There would be enormous gravitational pull to a quartet of 'Vanessa' embracing a small terrace.  To dine amid a grove of 'Vanessa'—an octet of them, I mean, or even a full dozen?  The occasion of a lifetime.


One more element to the fantasy:  Surround your Parrotia grove with as high an evergreen hedge as you can stand to prune (or afford to have pruned).  And then, when you visit your grove in the Winter, the ironwoods' bark would be highlighted to perfection.  In the warm months, the hedge will only increase the magnetic mystery of the space.  Someone, please:  Create this, now.  And then, in ten years, insist that I join you for dinner.  I'm an easy touch, not to worry.


No matter how many or few ironwoods you have, be sure to plant where you can view the bark at close-range year-round.  It's more exposed in the Winter, after the leaves have fallen.  But this is also the time when the ground is more likely to be wet, squishy, or downright muddy.  Save your grass, your beds, and your shoes, then, by planting Parrotia near paving. 


Any decent soil, in full sun to light shade, as long as there's reasonable drainage.  Given how well my own pair of 'Vanessa' is doing, though, this isn't the tree that needs fantastic drainage:  My soil is heavy and moisture-retentive, and my land is nearly flat.  So "great drainage" is something I admire in other people's gardens. 

How to handle it: The Basics

Parrotia is so appealing, in part, because it's so little trouble.  Just give it full sun, plus average soil and drainage.  It will take it from there.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

'Vanessa' responds quickly to pruning, and the growth is twiggy enough already that it can make a good hedge.  Or, as in my garden, a portal.


Because Parrotia flowers are modest (or, with better spin, "subtle"), there's no downside to growing the species as a hedge, which, in any species, will nearly always have a sparser display of flowers or fruit than free-range individuals.  And because Parrotia is so hardy (it's listed as both Zone 5 and Zone 4), there's no worry about pruning when you want to, not just during a limited best-practice seasonal window.


As with beech trees that you grow as hedges, if you prune in late Fall, your clean lines hold through resumption of growth in the Spring.  You'll probably want to do a mid-Summer trim, as well. 

Quirks or special cases



Parrotia is unusually self-reliant; as long as they have at least average soil, good drainage, and plenty of sun, you can expect that your Parrotia will be happy. 


Parrotia is the only species in its genus, and so there aren't opportunities to get out there and hybridize with the relatives the way there would be in a multi-species family, such as, say, Acanthus, with about thirty species that can (and do) spontaneously hybridize as well as mutate.  And then, when humans get involved, things just get more complicated, still. 


And so twenty years ago, a weeping Parrotia cultivar was it—but was sometime disparaged as just a side branch that kept growing sideways, not a true weeper. 


So it's a welcome development that, despite such a slender gene pool, some exciting cultivars have come forth.  Besides 'Vanessa', 'Kew's Weeping' is now the real deal, to five feet tall but fifteen or even twenty feet wide.  'Persian Lace' is normal-habit and variegated (and, to my eye, not quite ready for prime time).  'Ruby Vase' is columnar and with purple new foliage.  


These possibilities notwithstanding, if you only want to have one Parrotia, and you have room for the full-sized species, plant it.


On-line and at "destination" retailers.


By cuttings. Parrotia is exceptional in the Hamamelidaceae genus; when you purchase a cultivar of Hamamelis itself, it will most often have been formed by grafting. And, inevitably, the rootstock will sucker, repeatedly and for many years, necessitating faithful cutting back of the suckers if they aren't to overwhelm the cultivar. Parrotia persica cuttings are easy to root and, so, its cultivars are rarely propagated by grafting.  In projects, I often use Parrotia in place of Hamamelis for this reason alone. 

Native habitat

Parrotia persicais native to northern Iran.


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