By Wendy Diaz EMGV
Last May, I planned a short weekend trip with my husband to try and find the native Silky Camelia (Stewartia malacodendron) in bloom at the Ev-Henwood Nature Preserve (pronounced Heaven wood) in Brunswick County, near the coast of North Carolina. The Silky Camelia is the signature plant of this 175-acre nature preserve which is an example of Bottomland Hardwood Forest and Wetland Habitats of the Coastal Plain. Fifteen trails cross these diverse habitats. Our home base was a Bed and Breakfast in Southport, North Carolina even though Wilmington was probably closer; Southport is a quaint town with lots of restaurants and on the same side of the river as the preserve. I first heard of this native gem during a virtual lecture on NC Coastal Ecology by Amy Mead (Area Natural Resources Agent) on November 5, 2021 (part of the Carolina Backyard Naturalist Program hosted by N.C. Cooperative Extension Agents Matt Jones and Sam Marshal).
Photograph of flowering Silky Camelia at the Ev-Henrood Nature Preserve in bloom on May 14, 2022. Looking out at marsh near the Marina at Southport, NC. Photographs by Wendy Diaz, May 2022.
The exact timing of the peak bloom depends on several factors mainly the weather (give or take one week), amount of sun exposure and latitude. Generally, they flower in mid-Spring, around Mother’s Day, along the south coast and late Spring farther north-my friend saw the blossoms on a kayak trip at Merchant’s Mill Pond on May 26, 2022.
We picked a very ‘wet weekend’ and found one Silky Camelia bush after climbing over fallen trees (some trail junctions are not well marked) on May 14, 2022 on Stewartia Loop of the David Sieren Learning Trail at Ev-Henwood. A powerful thunderstorm the night before, jettisoned a lot of blossoms to the forest floor unfortunately but nevertheless I was delighted to see many intact and beautiful white-blossoms delicately adorned with rain drops and round perfect spherical buds still on this spreading shrub. This weekend turned to be, despite the weather, another successful botanical trek to see North Carolina’s outstanding floral display! (I wrote about a similar weekend trip to the mountains in 2021 to see the rhododendrons). After, I took a few photographs my husband was anxious to head back to the car as dark clouds rolled in. On the way out of the Preserve, we noticed another shrub with abundant blossoms near the entrance as well.
Top: Silky camelia blossom Middle: fallen Silky Camelia blossoms on forest floor, newly opened blossom, blossoms Bottom: Buds on Silky Camelia branches and single round bud of Silky Camelia
History of the Ev-Henwood Nature Preserve
The Ev-Henwood Preserve is a former farm along Town Creek, a tributary to the Cape Fear River, in rural Brunswick County which was acquired from the former owner, Mr. Troy Henry by the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in 1991. In 2005, 64 acres was placed under a conservation agreement with Coastal Land Trust in partnership with UNCW. Mr. Henry named the Preserve after combining his maternal (Evans) and paternal (Henry) family names. The land was in his family almost continuously from the 1790’s. It was also used for logging of pine forests (for lumber and shingles) and crops of corn, peas, beans, sweet potatoes, peanuts, cotton, pears, grapes, hay and soybeans. Mistletoe and holly branches were clipped and shipped to New York at Christmas time during the depression. By 1850 the family was a part of the navel stores industry and most of the long-leaf pines were cut to tap the raw pine sap (soft turpentine) and distributed to distilleries nearby. At the end of the Dogwood Trail there is an area of raised land that is the remains of the tar kiln used to extract turpentine.
The Silky Camelia or Stewartia (Stewartia malacodendron) is a rarely seen native plant which occurs only in ten states in the southeast, including North Carolina. The plant is listed as ‘imperiled’ in the State of Georgia with only nine confirmed sightings since 2000. The showy saucer-shaped flowers are about 3 inches in diameter. The flower’s five white petals have crimped edges and are occasionally streaked with purple. In the center of the flower are 50 to 100 purple stamens with blue anthers. The genus is in honor of John Stuart (1713 -1792), a 16th century Scottish botanist. Due to a transcription error the original name was spelled Stewartia and in the 19th century was spelled Stuartia for a time but the original spelling is now accepted. The species name malacodendron means “soft tree” in Greek and refers to the silky hairs of the underside of the leaves. The young twigs of this shrub also have silky hairs. It is related to the tea family and other camelias and is a small under-story woodland species. The deciduous shrub or small tree is multi-stemmed and spreads horizontally from about 15 to 25 feet wide with a height reaching 10 to 18 feet. It prefers partial shade (only 2 to 6 hours of direct sunlight) to deep shade (no direct sunlight) in sandy acidic to neutral soil with high organic matter and good drainage conditions. The smooth bark is burgundy or reddish-brown colored and exfoliates into strips. The leaves are dark green, elliptical shape (2 to 4 inches long) and alternate with silky hairs underneath. In the fall the leaves turn yellow. The flowers give way to oval-shaped green fruit about an inch in diameter in the fall. The woody capsule contains 1 to 4 seeds.
Top: Cinnamon-colored stem and tiny hairs on young stems and underneath/edge of leaves. Middle: Large white saucer-shaped blossoms with crimped edges of Silky Camelia, purplish to redish stamens in center of blossom. Middle: spreading habit of Silky Camelia shrub, Silky camelia blossoms and fruits formering on stems.
There is more to than the Silky Camelia to see along the trails of Ev-Henwood and other plants that we saw were lichens covering the ground, large ferns and many wildflowers. There were several small Sparkleberry (vaccinium arboretum) shrubs in full bloom along with skinks, snakes and turtles. The largest bald cypress tree (Taxodioum distichum) in the preserve (named Old Gus by Mr. Henry) with a 17.6 foot circumference and 5.5 diameter can be seen along the Beechwood Trail. This preserve is also listed on the NC Birding Trail and you may see some of North Carolina’s more colorful songbirds along the trails such as the Prothonotary Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting. Other birds have been identified here such as the Bobwhite Quail, Barred Owls, Pileated Woodpeckers, Cooper’s Hawks, Great Blue Herons and Belted Kingfishers.
Top: Lichen growing on the forest floor, large fern Middle top: Sparkleberry (vaccinium arboretum) bush in full bloom, close-up of sparkle berry flowers, hoary skullcap (Scutellaria). Middle bottom: Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium), Bald Cypress (Taxodioum distichum) ‘Old Gus’ Bottom: Snake and skink on the trails.
For a rewarding experience during mid-May, I urge you to go for a hike at the Ev-Henwood Preserve and enjoy the beautiful Silky Camelia blossoms along with the other abundant natural features it offers. If you have the time and stay overnight then I would recommend the charming town of Southport. I hope your weekend will be drier than ours.
Plan your own adventure at the Ev-Henwood Nature Preserve 6150 Rock Creek Road, NE Leland, NC 28451
Ev-Henwood Nature Preserve is about 10 miles south of Wilmington, North Carolina. To reach the preserve from route U.S. 17, follow Old Town Creek Road to its intersection with Town Creek Road, turn right and go about three blocks to Rock Creek Road. The Preserve is at 6150 Rock Creek Road.
Each trail takes about 2 hours and a 33-page manual is available for download on this website.