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Fragrant Snowbell: A Styrax to Grow and to Sip

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Fragrant Snowbell: A Styrax to Grow and to Sip

Marie Viljoen July 8, 2024

One spring, before a pandemic seized the world, I met a tree with heart-shaped leaves shading white flowers that were unforgettably scented. Fragrant snowbell now hovers near the top of a wish-list of shrubs I would like to grow. It is Styrax obassia, an East Asian species of snowbell whose late spring perfume, drifting on a May breeze, is reason enough to start scrolling feverishly through nursery catalogs. As an added incentive, it also makes a fragrantly refreshing drink.

Here’s where to grow it.

Photography by Marie Viljoen.

Above: Up close is the best way to appreciate fragrant snowbell flowers.

That perfume is released by fragrant snowbell’s constellations of white flowers, suspended from graceful racemes that seem to float beneath the shrub’s wide, heart-shaped foliage. Fat bumblebees visit these blooms, whose pollen is a rich, apricot-gold. On the shrub, opening sequentially, the flowers last for three weeks, but their intoxicating fragrance and flavor can be preserved and enjoyed in a simple fermented cordial or an aromatic vinegar.

Above: Racemes of perfumed bells can be longer than 10 inches, opening top to bottom.

While fragrant snowbell’s individual bell-shaped flowers are similar in appearance to S. japonicus, and also to native Americans species, their unique distinction is that they are deeply perfumed and arranged on slender, up to 10-inch-long racemes, making them dramatically beautiful. The best place to enjoy them may be on your back, gazing up at them from below in the green, leafy light. If you have the luxury of a hill, a hummock, or a berm in your growing space, situating fragrant snowbell atop it will allow you to see the flowers even better, while remaining standing on two legs.

Above: Look up.

Fragrant snowbell is usually described as a large shrub or a small tree. When mature, its shape is rounded. It’s a good shrub for small spaces, but rather wide for a container garden, like mine. The velvet-soft leaves are ornamental in their own right, and the small green, nut-like fruits that follow the weeks-long display for flowers add late summer interest.

Above: The rich color of fragrant snowbell pollen gives focus to the flowers’ form.

How to Grow Fragrant Snowbell

  • While fragrant snowbell will grow in high, dappled shade, you want as many flowers as possible, and that requires full sun (at least six hours).
  • The shrubs are tolerant of a wide range of soils, with the exception of clogging clay.
  • Fragrant snowbell is hardy from USDA growing zones 5 – 8.
  • A 3-gallon fragrant snowbell is $28.00 from Nurseries Caroliniana
Above: Some sources say the ample leaves detract from the flowers; rather, they invite closer appreciation.

How to Sip Fragrant Snowbell

Above: Strip the flowers from their green stems before fermenting.
Above: Turbinado sugar gave this snowbell cordial ferment a darker hue.

After the first fizzing of natural fermentation happens, you have the cordial, a concentrate that you strain and bottle and refrigerate to drink diluted. Or you return that fragrant, sweet liquid to the loosely covered jar to invite the acetobacter to do their work, with time. This stage of the ferment turns into a deeply fruity and complex vinegar, in anywhere from four to 12 weeks. It is deliciously versatile, from a restorative summer beverage sipped with ice and chilled water, to a comfort-food braise of duck legs or root vegetables in the middle of winter.

Above: PH test strips are helpful for deciding when to bottle the vinegar.
Above: Fragrant snowbell vinegar, pine cone jam, ice, and sparkling water.
Above: Fragrant snowbell vinegar, bottled in July, from May’s flowers.

Recipe: Fragrant Snowbell Cordial and Vinegar

Makes about 6 cups

A large jar is best for this type of ferment. I use 64 oz Ball Jars, organic granulated sugar, and Brooklyn tap water.

4 packed cups fragrant snowbell flowers, stripped from their stalks (about 20 racemes, but it depends on their length)
2 cups sugar
6 cups water, or enough to reach the 6-cup mark on the jar

Do not wash the flowers or you will lose their scent.

Place the flowers in the clean jar. Add the sugar and the water. Either stir very well with a long-handled wooden spoon or screw a lid on and shake the jar to dissolve the sugar. Loosen the lid, if using, or cover the jar’s mouth with cheesecloth or a piece of paper towel secured with a rubber band or string. The ferment needs air, and the cloth or loose lid allows it in. Never keep a lid firmly screwed on, as fermentation will release gas that needs to escape. If it can’t escape, a sealed jar can explode.

Leave the jar at room temperature in a place away from direct light, and stir the contents once a day.

From around Day 2 to 6 (this varies a lot), you will notice small bubbles forming, and more when you stir. Your ferment is on its way. At this stage it will taste sweet and very appealing. When a lot of bubbles rise after stirring (usually another couple of days), allow another two days before straining this cordial into a large bowl through a fine-mesh sieve. Strain again (if you like, but it’s not essential) through doubled cheesecloth or linen. For a sweet cordial, you can now bottle it and keep it in the fridge for drinks or desserts (it makes wonderful ice cream).

If you want to continue and make vinegar, return the strained liquid to the rinsed jar, cover loosely again, and keep at room temperature in a spot without bright light. Stir or swoosh daily, making sure that your hands and any implement that touches the vinegar is clean. After a couple of weeks I taste the cordial every few days, noticing how its flavor transforms. Sometimes a vinegar mother forms on the surface, although not always. When it tastes like vinegar, it is vinegar. I test it with pH strips, and bottle when it hovers around the 4-mark.

Bottle, and keep at room temperature. Once a bottle is open, keep it cold in the fridge.

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