Cyrilla spp.
Cyrilla arida 
Swamp, littleleaf and sandhill titi

 by Thelma Glover

For summer flowers and architectural character Cyrilla is one of the best.  Contorted, recurved branches that may be twisted upward or outward or weeping slightly to sweeping the ground give this shrub a graceful and uniquely interesting look.  In mid June in the Atlanta area large, showy, pendulous, horizontal  racemes of small white fragrant flowers whorl around the ends of the stems between the previous year’s growth and the early spring growth of the current year.  Depending on how contorted the branches, the stems and leaves can almost be totally hidden behind the numerous racemes on the small leaf species.   After the flowers turn to seeds in late summer, the raceme, now turned a pale golden brown, persists through most of the year and is almost as beautiful as when in flower. What other plant has the showy summer flowering of a crape myrtle, the graceful habit of a weeping cherry, the pest resistance of a wax myrtle, and produces a nectar that makes a delicious and very tasty honey.

 

Cyrilla, commonly called titi, can be found growing in acid, shrub-tree bogs and titi swamps in the Florida Panhandle along with many other beautiful shrubs, such as sweet bay Magnolia, Myrica, Clethera and several holly species and its near relative, Cliftonia, called black titi.  Considering this impressive list of neighbors, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the Cyrillas make terrific garden plants also.

 

Cyrilla is a member of the small but ornamentally beautiful Cyrillaceae (Titi) family, which includes Cliftonia, another southeastern native which is likely to be found growing side by side with Cyrillas.  Endemic to the southeastern coastal plain from Delaware to points south to northeastern South America, this beautiful flowering shrub is almost always found growing in swamps, low wet woods, bogs or in some type of  acid  wetland.   The family and the genus commemorates an Italian physician, Domenico M.L. Cirillo (1739-1799), who would probably be proud to know that a most spectacular and elegant specimen of Cyrilla racemiflora, swamp titi, dominates a small knoll along the main path in the Villa Toronto Botanical Garden on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy.  Closer to home, all  three of the Cyrilla species can be seen in the shrub area of the Ga. Perimeter Botanical Garden and in a bed  adjacent to the parking area beside the greenhouses at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.  To see masses of Cyrilla parvifolia, littleleaf titi,  in bloom in its native habitat, a good place is roadside along Florida hwy 20 in Liberty County during June and July.  Cyrilla racemiflora grows in mass along US hwy 82 from Waycross to Brunswick.                                              

Description:    The Cyrilla genus is totally confusing taxonomically. Some botanist consider Cyrilla to be a monotypic genus (composed of one species) with C. racemiflora represented by variety racemiflora and variety parvifolia.  Others consider parvifolia to be a separate species.  Basically, C. racemiflora has larger leaves, 5-10cm long & 12-25mm wide.  C. parvifolia leaves are from 2-4cm long & 5-12mm wide.  Small’s manual (1933) describes yet another species, C. arida, sandhill or scrub titi,  which has not since been  mentioned  in any other major botanical flora guide.  Several years ago, Bob McCartney of Woodlanders Nursery, found a tiny population of this “lost” species in central Florida at a site under development.   Fearing that it might become extinct in the wild he made cuttings of this species and has been offering it for sale for several years.  C. arida, unlike the other two, is found in dry scrub (arid) in central Florida with a leaf size overlapping the other two species.  C. parvifolia and C. arida  in the GPBot Garden have been totally evergreen for the last 7 years, while  C. racemiflora leaves color burgundy, red or orange  in the fall and by February almost all have fallen.  All are large irregularly, rounded shrubs which can grow to 20-25 feet, average size  12-15 feet. 

Culture:    Listed as a wetlands indicator species by the USDA, Cyrillas cultivate readily in an ordinary garden situation as far north as zone 5 and thrive happily with minimum water after establishment.  It can grow in soil that is periodically wet but well drained. In the boggy soil where it grows in the wild, the soil is sandy and loose and the roots grow close to the soil surface, allowing the water to drain through the roots.   Plant it in light, acid, loose, medium, fertile soil in full sun. C. arida species may not do as well in wet soil as the other two species since it is found in a scrub habitat.   It is new to cultivation and it’s doubtful that anyone knows whether it will or not at the present time.  Cyrillas, like other contorted shrubs, are best left unpruned so give it at least an 8’ wide space to spread. It is fast growing in youth but it will take many years to reach its ultimate spread. Use container grown plants and transplant them in late fall or winter. All of the Cyrillas are very pest and disease resistant. They like to be fertilized.

Propagation:   Seeds ripen to a golden brown by early fall and can be collected well into winter.  They can be dry stored in a refrigerator and later planted without any prior treatment.  Softwood cuttings can be made from May through September.  Treated with a rooting hormone, under mist, rooting is close to 100%. Most cuttings will have roots within 12 weeks, but some take longer so it’s best to use sand as the rooting medium.  Rooted cuttings grow very fast if fertilized and containers overwinter with no problem. Branches that weep are good candidates for ground layering. 

Garden Use:   Use the small leaf species in foundation corner plantings or in containers and rooftop gardens. All of the species are naturals for lake and streamside plantings.  Swamp titi makes a good specimen planting either in a large landscape or small garden.  All combine nicely with Cliftonia, hollies, viburnums and grasses.

 


References:

Duncan, W.H. and Marion B. Duncan. 1988. Trees of the Southeastern United States. UGA Press, Athens, GA.

Gleason, H.A. 1952. The New Britton & Brown Illustrated Flora of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. 3 vols.  Hafner Press, NY.

Godfrey,R.K. 1988. Trees, Shrubs, And Woody Vines of Northern Florida and Adjacent Georgia and Alabama. UGA Press, Athens, GA.

Small, John K. 1933. Manual of Southeastern Flora, UNC Press, Chapel Hill, NC.

Woodlanders Nursery Catalogue. Fall 1999-Spring 2000


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Glover, Thelma.  "Cyrilla spp."   Native Shrubs.  14 Aug. 2004.  http://www.gpc.edu/~ddonald/botgard/george3.htm
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