Tough and Beautiful is Hard to Beat

Parrotia persica, also known as Persian ironwood, is native to a relatively small region of northern Iran and Azerbaijan, near the southern edge of the Caspian Sea.
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Photo: Michael Masiuk

It was named for the German explorer Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Parrot, who was the first European to climb Mt. Ararat. The dense wood is used for telephone poles, bridge construction and tool handles in its native range.

Parrotia persica may be grown as a single-trunked specimen or it may be multi-stemmed. It grows 20-40 feet tall, with single-trunked trees spreading 15-30 feet. Multi-stemmed trees may be wider than tall. The habit can vary from oval-rounded to upright, somewhat vase-shaped.

The flowers appear in late winter or very early spring, before the leaves emerge. They are comprised of dense red stamens surrounded by brownish bracts, and lack petals. The flowers are interesting, but not particularly showy. Parrotia persica foliage emerges reddish-purple in spring, and then hardens to a medium or dark lustrous green. Leaves are oval to ovate-oblong with wavy margins, and are similar in appearance to other members of the witch-hazel family (Hamamelidaceae) such as Corylopsis and Fothergilla. Fall color is a striking combination of yellows, oranges, reds and purples.

The exfoliating bark is another outstanding feature, revealing patches of green, white, and tan, similar in appearance to lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana). This characteristic is somewhat slow to develop, as the tree has to achieve some maturity first.

Parrotia persica grows best in fall sun to partial shade and average, slightly acidic, well-drained soil. It is tolerant of clay soil as long as it drains well, and once established is tolerant of heat and drought, as well as air pollution, cold and wind. The cultivar 'Vanessa' was named the 2014 Urban Tree of the Year by the Society of Municipal Arborists. Parrotia is hardy in USDA Zones 4-8.

Plant Parrotia as a specimen, in groups, or in beds and borders. This is an excellent choice for urban conditions, and some sources recommend it as a street tree. Unfortunately, there is conflicting information regarding Parrotia's tolerance for deicing salts, so it may be best to plant it where they are not used.

Cultivars include:

  • Persian Spire™ - selected for its columnar to upright oval growth habit and green leaves that sport purple margins through the growing season.
  • 'Pendula' - selected for its stiffly weeping growth habit; not readily available.
  • 'Purple Moon' - selected for its uniform purple leaves.
  • 'Vanessa' - selected for its upright, columnar habit; matures at 40 feet tall with a 20-foot spread.