Eric’s Pet Plant: Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica)

Parrotia persica (persian ironwood)

Classic Eric caption: “When all others have disrobed, the Parrotia, whether through shyness or due to acumen at strip poker, still hangs on to its leaves. Yes, it is somewhat in need of a shaping up by way of pruning, but spring is the time to best tackle that task.”

When I first asked my friend Eric to post some of his pet plant reviews here, I did it for two reasons:

1. His taste is somewhat different from mine, and because he’s in charge of a good-sized public greenhouse complex and research garden (Marsh Botanical Garden, at Yale University) his brief is very different indeed.

2. He has an endearing tendency to wander far from horticulture on his way to discussing things like  exposure and soil pH. That  aspect of his writing has been somewhat in abeyance lately, but on this occasion he has beyond outdone himself. Those who want to (metaphorically) skip directly to the recipe are encouraged to scroll down to the headline: On the Parrotia Itself.


Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica)

By Eric Larson

Back in 1831, when the Russian botanist Carl Anton Andreevic von Meyer named our plant’s genus, he was almost certainly thinking of the naturalist Johann Jacob Friedrich Wilhelm Parrot.

But I can’t help thinking he was also saluting Johann’s father, Georg Friedrich. Georg was born in 1767, to a respectable family in Württemberg (his father was physician to the local duke). He studied physics and mathematics in Stuttgart, then moved his family to Riga, the capital of Livonia, in the Russian empire.

There he was instrumental in convincing Emperor Alexander I to reinstate the University of Dorpat, a major achievement. When Parrot got there, this august university,  the only one in the region and the second oldest in Sweden (founded by King Gustavus Adolphus in 1632) had been out of commission since 1710, when Peter the Great conquered the Baltic Sea provinces.

The university reopened in 1802, and Georg Parrot was appointed the Chair of Physics.

Not only was he obviously persuasive and a well-respected scholar, he had some backbone as well. In an era when Baltic German barons ruled the region autonomously, Georg was a staunch supporter of academic freedom and self-government for the university, a vocal supporter of the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment.

His sense of fairness, especially as regards economic and political equality for all people, brought him up against the interests of the powers that be on numerous occasions, and these words from his speech at the University’s opening ceremony ring loud today, still cogent to societal views of scientific advancement, food and nutrition issues and respect for each other:

“While you are using with a laudatory diligence all that science and art are able to provide for the benefit of your culture, the countryman is working for you on his field; he is devoting his toil for you, working in the hardest conditions all his days, even part of the nights, and because of that he is enforced to fall behind you in his cultural development. […] You understand that those who feed you are entitled to much more than merely a miserable existence, that they have every right to expect your gratitude, your respect, our gratitude, our respect.”

Although this was said by his contemporaries to have made a deep impression on the attendees, Georg Parrot’s greatest moment came later, when he was selected to give a speech in honor of Emperor Alexander I, who stopped at the University on his way to a meting with King Frederick William III of Prussia. Expressing his gratitude to the Emperor for reopening the institution, he also applauded the ideal of an ‘enlightened monarchy,’ and promised to work diligently and honestly to serve science and humankind.

This was met with great accolades, not the least of them from the ambitious Emperor, which resulted in a long fruitful relationship involving the school, Imperial support and Parrot himself.

Meanwhile, his son J.J.F.W. , born in 1792, became a scholar in his own right. But he was an adventurer and traveler as well. He undertook expeditions to the Crimea, the Caucasus, and the Caspian Sea,  and he climbed Mt. Ararat with Khachatur Abovian, an Armenian writer and national public figure.

J.J.F.W. invented a gasometer and a baro-thermometer and popularized the Catalonian sundial.  Unfortunately, he died before his father. Perhaps von Meyer chose the name to give a nod to the younger Parrot’s travels, but I’m sure he was more acutely aware of the elder Parrot’s accomplishments.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

On the Parrotia Itself

Persian Ironwood, a native of the Alborz Mountains of northern Iran, was introduced into cultivation in 1840. There is but one species in the genus, and it is a member of the Witch-hazel family, Hamamelidaceae.

Like other members of this family, it has leaves that resist low temperatures (often living through cold snaps reaching into the twenties), and it blooms when the plant is leafless. It has distinctly asymmetrical leaves like other witch hazels, and it has a GREAT fall color, a trait in common with its cousins. I know I bandy about superlatives like ‘Great,’ ‘Awesome,’ ‘Fantastic’ and ‘Superb,’ but believe me, this is one small tree that will bear me out.

Parrotia grows to about 30 or 40 feet tall, with a spread of 15 to 30 feet. The size and shape of the plant are extremely variable, with some trees wider than tall. They are an ideal tree for the small garden or yard, as they grow slowly or at most a medium rate and are easily pruned. These trees are extremely pest resistant, they are well behaved and they have year long interest .

In spring, the new foliage emerges reddish-purple, and unfolds to a lustrous medium green.  In late November, the leaves turn shades of deep yellow, orange and red and hold on for an extended period of time, often up to two weeks.

In winter, the older stems and the trunk exhibit a beautiful exfoliation, similar to the Sycamore and the Stewartia. The gray, green, white, brown, tan, cinnamon and even pink patches on the bark make for a great winter show when not much else is happening in the garden.

Finally, in late winter and early spring, the small flowers emerge, changing from crimson/maroon to yellow as the anthers shed their pollen.

Plant your parrotia in full sun or partial shade, in well-drained average slightly acid soil, and you will not be disappointed in any season. You will also astound your visitors with a rather rare plant and your knowledge of Baltic history. What could be better?

autumn leaves of parrotia persica (persian ironwood)

The lovely yellow to orange-yellow fall color of Parrotia is especially nice when back-lit. “Hark,what light through yonder window breaks?” That’s a Parrotia!




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  • vaughn Said,

    these essays, that wander gently over quite a bit of terrain, are my favourites.

    Welcome, Vaughn, and thanks for saying so – I’ll be sure Eric sees your comment!

  • This is a lovely and often amusing essay, and the plant is gorgeous–and yes, backlit, through yonder window! I thought ironwood was that awful indoor plant–so glad to see there’s something else by that name.

  • Eric Larson Said,

    Thanks so much, Vaughn and Melinda. Melinda, your note about the indoor plant encouraged me to ‘Google’ Ironwood, and the list of plants that came back is about over thirty in number. This is one reason we use the scientific binomials for plants, to forestall that confusion.
    Vaughn, I give much credit to Leslie for her very capable editing, otherwise the terrain would be considerably less gentle.
    Thanks for reading!

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