Generally, the chaparral is not known for its soft and fuzzy side. At least not until you find its soft and fuzzy side. What makes the chaparral such a wonderful and seductive habitat to explore is its tendency to reveal things time and time again. The chaparral is layered in growth, plants, and experiences of all forms. Life abounds in the chaparral and it can be a treasure trove of remarkable and outright beautiful plants. Sometimes that beauty is tucked far within and sometimes it hides in plain sight.

One of those inconspicuous shrubs of the chaparral until it’s not inconspicuous is Styrax redivivus (California Snowdrop). If you’ve ever found it in bloom you will know what that means. When not in flower, it tends to hide. But when it does flower, there’s no missing it. 

Habitat & Range

Finding Styrax is relatively easy, despite it having a some what limited range. First, you need to know where to look for it. It may not be a widespread shrub, but it does occur in areas that are generally accessible. It grows in clustered locations throughout the inner Coast Ranges, Sierra Nevada foothills and the mountains of southern California. Basically, it grows where summer hot and dry conditions prevail. 

Range map for Styrax redivivus. For the full story on Styrax in California, including taxonomic twists and some insight into Madrean-Tethyan vegetation, read the paper by paper Peter Fritsch, Population Structuring and Patterns of Morphological Variation in Californian Styrax (Styracaceae)  Or, read a great article by Philip Van Soelen in Pacific Horticulture

Styrax typically grows in inland locations that are blocked from maritime influence. When it does occur closer to the coast, it grows at elevations above the thermal belt. And while it likes the hot and dry, it does also seem to prefer north facing slopes, which suggests it may also prefer sites with relatively lower evapotranspiration rates. That said, it can also be found on south facing slopes.

Styrax is not picky about soil types but it typically grows in sedimentary soils like sandstones and shales, which are more often than not the prevailing soil types within its habitat and elevation range. Many of these sites are steep, rocky hillsides where other common chaparral species thrive.

In San Diego County, you can find it growing on a north facing slope of Iron Mountain near the town of Lakeside. At that location, it grows within eye shot along the lower portions of the Iron Mountain Trail. In Santa Barbara County, it can be found in scattered locations along Camino Cielo near San Marcos Pass. From there, you can quite possibly spot it from the car (if you know what you’re looking for anyway). And in the pine and chaparral habitats areas around Lake Shasta, you nearly trip over it.

Styrax redivivus habitat along the Camino Cielo ridge in Santa Barbara County. In the far distance are the San Rafael Mountains to the east. 

Styrax habitat above the fog line. 

Chaparral habitat on a steep exposure in Santa Barbara County. Styrax reivivus can be found growing alongside other common chaparral plants. It can even be found under the forested canopy of Coast Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia).  

Growth and Form

Styrax is a multi-stemmed shrub that arches outward. When it occurs in partial shade, its growth habit is more open with a sparse arrangement of leaves near the ends of branches or the shrub’s crown. When it occurs in more exposed conditions, the growth habit is fuller and more compact.

Styrax is a winter deciduous shrub with obovate leaves that are larger than most of its plant companions in the chaparral. In the southern California populations, the leaves are soft to the touch, somewhat unlike the schlerophyllus leaves of many other chaparral species. In the northern California populations, the leaves are more glabrous. The distinction in leaves has been noted by taxonomists and in the past caused them to note the northern and southern California species as two different subspecies. That distinction no longer applies. 

As for the flowers, they're pendulous (bell like) and hang in pairs or groupings in a way that gives the shrub a floriferous look when in bloom. The flower petals are a soft, creamy white with a bewildering shade of yellow on the sepals and anthers. I'll let the flowers speak for themselves. 

Obovate leaves with a cluster of flower buds. The pendulous flowers emerge in clusters.

Styrax generally blooms towards the latter half of spring in most places (i.e. mid to late May). 

Styrax growing in the shade. Note the open growth habit and sprawling branch pattern.

Styrax habitat with Quercus agrifolia and Acer macrophyllum on a north facing slope near Lake Shasta.

Growing Styrax

Styrax redivivus is wonderful and very worthy garden plant. It grows to a moderate size (typically 4' to ~8' tall) but manages to blend well with other nearby plants. It's also very versatile and can handle a range of conditions, from part shade to full sun and is never too fussy about garden soils. 

However, Styrax remains a very underutilized plant in the garden and there are some understandable reasons for that: it's painfully slow growing and it's winter deciduous. Winter deciduous plants are just that - deciduous. But, winter deciduous plants also offer many great things like perches for birds or fall color. Depending on microclimates, Styrax can sometimes provide fall color. And what about its slow growth rate? With a little planning and understanding of what to expect, its growth rate can definitely be accommodated. When embraced, years of pleasant surprises help offset its slower growth. 

A great way to grow Styrax is to start it off in a pot (it does well in pots). That way you can first enjoy it up close while it grows larger. (Note: I have only grown it in a pot. I have yet to plant mine out in the garden, so what follows is less from personal experience.) When the plant is bigger years down the road, plant it in a sunny or partially shady spot in your garden. Plant it where it has space to grow into (an area 3' to 6' wide) and let it blend in for a while until it reaches about 4' to 5' tall. Or lieu of that approach, simply plant it out in the garden right away knowing it may not carry a presence for several growing seasons to come. 

The trick to growing Styrax is to remember that it grows in chaparral areas that are hot and dry but that it also has a preference for north facing slopes. In the garden, this can translate to spaces where it can arch into full sun but keep its root zone partially shaded. Planting it next to a rock or some boulders is a great way to provide that cool, moist spot for its roots. Place the boulders on the south facing side of the plant. If full sun conditions are limited in your garden space, place Styrax where its roots may remain in filtered shade but the shrub itself can arch out into a hot and sunny spot. In all of these instances, Styrax will look and perform better with a trace amount of summer water. How much depends on the exposure of its site. Again, think of those north facing sites in hot and dry areas.

Styrax also makes a great focal point shrub once you get it to a reasonable size. When it's placed in full sun, it will attain a nice form and structure. And it will of course put on a show when in bloom. I first saw Styrax at the Regional Parks (Tilden) Botanic Garden under these conditions.

As its fruits start to develop, Styrax will then drop its flowers in a cascading arrangement that gracefully covers the ground like little snowdrops. Hence its common name, California Snowdrop. Once it reaches maturity, it will be the show piece of the garden. Again, it's worth the wait. 

Planting Specifications

Additional Resources

Pacific Horticulture article on Styrax by Philip Van Soelen:

Population Structuring and Patterns of Morphological Variation in Californian Styrax (Styracaceae) by Peter Fritsch, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Using Format