Plant 200

Parrotia persica (DC.) C.A.Mey. (Hamamelidaceae)


Persian ironwood

Parrotia persica is a deciduous tree or spreading shrub. It is a member of the Hamamelidaceae (witch hazel family), a diverse group of mostly winter-flowering shrubs.

As a highly ornamental tree it holds interest through the seasons. In winter, exfoliating bark peels away creating a camouflage of pinks, grey-greens and browns, while twigs hold black, velvety buds. Clusters of flowers are borne on bare stems in early spring before the leaves. Unlike the closely related Hamamelis, the flowers do not have petals. The bracts open to reveal between five and seven scarlet stamens carrying powdery pollen and two styles which receive the windborne pollen. The colour of the anthers fades over time as the floral parts are exposed, but when caught in the light the flowers can create a red haze. In late spring, the leaf buds open into asymmetric scallop-shaped leaves, with the glossy, green foliage lasting over the summer. Parrotia reaches its crescendo with a stunning autumn display as chlorophyll breaks down in the leaves and carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments are exposed creating a golden-yellow, red and purple show.

Parrotia persica originates from the forests south of the Caspian Sea in Iran and Azerbaijan. In 1831 a French botanist, Carl Anton Meyer, placed Parrotia in its own genus. He named it Parrotia to commemorate the nineteenth-century Baltic-German naturalist Friedrich Parrot, who, in 1829, achieved fame as the first European to reach the summit of Mount Ararat. Although the species is not currently threatened, conservation of these plants in their native region of the Alborz Mountains has been of concern as land use changes are leading to deforestation for agriculture, housing and industry. This region is the only area of the species' natural occurrence in the world.

Parrotia persica entered cultivation in the 1840s, initially being grown in St. Petersburg Botanical Garden and later Kew Gardens, reaching North America in 1880. It was thought to be the only species in the genus until Parrotia subaequalis was described from China in 1960, based on material collected in 1935. This species is critically endangered.

The name Persian Ironwood is well chosen as this slow-growing species is renowned for its dense, solid wood. In its early years the tree exhibits a vertical form which later relaxes into a dome shape with limbs extending horizontally. Mature trees sometimes exhibit self-grafting where touching branches fuse over time forming a serpentine network of interconnected limbs.

Further reading

Andrews S 2007. Tree of the Year: Parrotia. International Dendrology Society Year Book 2007: 6-37.

Li J and del Tredici P 2008. The Chinese Parrotia: a sibling species of the Persian Parrotia. Arnoldia 66: 1-9.

Nicholson RG 1989. Parrotia persica: an ancient tree for modern landscapes. Arnoldia 49: 34-39.

Jamie Todd