Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Gardeners are a stubborn lot. I've heard it said that you should kill a plant at least three times before concluding you cannot grow it. When a plant dies in my house or in the garden, there is this nagging feeling that somehow if I just had one more chance at growing that particular plant I could figure out what went wrong and be rewarded with a beautiful result.
And so it has been with my attempts to grow Serissa foetida, commonly called the Snowrose or Tree of a Thousand Stars.
Serissa foetida is a small shrub native to moist subtropical regions in Asia. It grows to a maximum height of about 48 inches. Its foliage is very finely textured, with leaves that are only about ¾ of an inch long. It develops attractive rough grey bark with age.
A "unique" feature of the Snowrose is that if any of the foliage is bruised or crushed, it emits a rotting or fetid smell-- hence the species name foetida, Latin for "stinking".
In contrast to the horrible scents it produces, Serissa foetida also flowers prolifically from early spring through autumn. While flowering, it is literally covered in tiny half inch wide star-shaped flowers, which explains another common name for this plant, Tree of a Thousand Stars.
Serissa foetida naturally stays fairly short in stature, and its leaves are inherently small with attractive bark on the stems. While Serissa foetida is technically not a tree, its appearance makes it the perfect plant for bonsai, the Japanese art of miniaturizing trees by growing them in containers.
My first encounter with Serissa foetida was in college when I became interested in bonsai. I had purchased a big box store version of a juniper bonsai and started reading library books on bonsai. It didn't take long to learn that the big box store bonsai was a really low quality example of bonsai. I dreamt of being able to grow one of the fabulous examples of bonsai in the library books I read-- one of the bonsai specimens I absolutely fell in love with was Serissa foetida.
As much as I wanted to grow a Serissa foetida, I had no clue where I could find one. Keep in mind this was at a time before the internet was an immediate "go to" resource for shopping. Today just doing a simple internet search will bring up dozens of online sources for these plants.
I finally found my beloved Serissa foetida at of all places, a craft fair. A local bonsai enthusiast set up a booth to sell examples of several species grown as bonsai that I had seen only in books. My first Serissa foetida had deep green leaves and was covered in bright white star-shaped flowers, planted in a shallow turquoise colored bonsai pot. It cost eighteen of my hard-earned babysitting dollars. It was beautiful.
I quickly learned that the books I had read weren't lying when they said Serissa foetida tends to drop leaves easily and can be "fussy". It seemed like if I looked at it wrong it dropped a few leaves as if on cue. But the good thing was it grew new leaves in a short time.
Serissa foetida will drop leaves if it is over-watered, under-watered, too cold, too hot, or if moved even a short distance from its current location. Keeping environmental conditions constant keeps the leaves on Serissa foetida.
As beautiful as my bonsai was, the shallow bonsai pot it was in proved challenging in keeping the soil moisture constant. The soil just dried out way too quickly. Just a few hours of excessive dryness was enough to cause leaf drop. And as I soon learned, there is a fine line between leaf drop and death with Serissa foetida. My first real bonsai was soon headed for the compost pile. But that didn't stop me from attempting to grow it again.
I've tried to grow Serissa foetida way more than three times, and I still haven't given up. I've purchased single and double flowered versions, some pink flowered cultivars, and a couple of variegated types. Since I lost the bonsai specimen, I've stuck to less expensive seedlings, purchased from local bonsai groups, botanic gardens, and I've even bought one on eBay! All did fine until at some point I let them get too dry for too long and they croaked.
My latest attempt was a total impulse buy against my better judgment-- but again, it was just too beautiful to pass up. It was another bonsai seedling, ready to be wired, trimmed and coaxed into position to mimic a full-grown tree.
This latest acquisition of mine has leaves with a creamy yellow variegation and single white flowers. While it was not labeled with its cultivar name, I suspect it is 'Mt. Fuji' which is known to change its pattern of variegation over the course of the year. I have observed that while the leaves had only a variegated edge when I purchased the plant this fall, now the leaves have a much wider region of variegation, almost engulfing the entire leaf.
Shortly after purchasing my latest specimen, I replanted it in a slightly larger pot with more soil volume. That way the potting mixture retains a bit more moisture and dries out slower, lessening the chance that this one will be moved to the compost bin anytime soon. I just have to be careful not to overwater, as Serissa foetida can be sensitive to root rot if kept too moist.
So far, so good with my latest Serissa foetida. I hope it doesn't realize I'm writing about it, or it's liable to start dropping leaves! I am optimistic that maybe my stubborn streak has finally paid off and I've figured out how to grow Serissa foetida--at least for the time being.