Shrubs offer value when other plants can’t
By: By JIMMY WILLIAMS Special to The Messenger
Far too many flower beds and borders are for only one, or at best two, seasons. There’s the late spring and summer blast and possibly a fall showing with the obligatory mums and asters, then it is generally junk city until the next blooming a full half a year hence.
It doesn’t have to be that way. It is true that most herbaceous plants are spring and summer bloomers, but there are other things — notably shrubs that can contribute even in the darkest months.
Evergreens, of course, rescue us to some degree from winter’s woes. There’s no reason a boxwood or two cannot be set amongst perennials for winter interest. I have boxwoods in at least three of my mixed borders.
Coniferous evergreens aren’t generally as suitable for this, with a few exceptions. Most conifers thin out in even light shade, so a dwarf Alberta spruce, for instance, would become ragged near the bottom of the plant if crowded, even slightly, by herbaceous plants.
You will think you’re going to make sure there’s plenty of air around such a conifer, but inevitably there comes a year when you turn your back and some vigorous marigold or impatiens shades out the evergreen during summer. It only takes a little while for the damage to occur, for once the conifer is thinned by shade no amount of further growth will repair the damage.
One exception to this is in the case of yews. Dark green needles are the forte of yews, and they stay in fine fettle all winter long. Shade doesn’t bother yews as much as it does other conifers, so they can be used in mixed settings without fear of thinning out in shade. A conical yew, standing like a sentinel in winter, can, almost by itself, keep up appearances in the cold seasons.
Another way to keep some attraction in winter mixed borders and beds is through berried plants.
Beautyberries — both American and Oriental types — will show color up until the first of the year. Callicarpa Americana is, as you would imagine, American beautyberry. This native plant forms great wads of brilliant red-purple berries around the stems of the 4-foot bush. These stand out after leaf fall. A beautyberry set amid herbaceous things will jump out of the woodwork when all the neighbors die down.
The eastern forms, from Japan and China, are Callicarpa japonica and Callicarpa dichotoma. The berries of these are smaller and not quite as showy. There are white forms of all three kinds that are spectacular.
Winterberries and possumhaw are native forms of deciduous (leaf shedding) hollies that are even more spectacular in winter than evergreen hollies. Often seen in fencerows and fields where birds plant their seeds, they make outstanding winter attractions.
They are of two species, Ilex decidua, which is possumhaw, and Ilex verticillata, which is commonly called winterberry.
Best of the latter, and probably best of all, is the variety Winter Red. It will literally droop under the weight of brilliant red berries, and they will stay on all winter and right up until leaf-out in spring.
All of the deciduous hollies require male and female plants to berry. A male plant must be in relative proximity to pollenize any nearby hens. Particularly virile males are available by variety name that bloom at the same time as a female.
There are many varieties of mother plants and the right stud must be chosen to mate with her. A reputable dealer or reference book will tell you which male goes with which concubine.
In full berry, these plants will literally carry a border or corner of your garden through the winter.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger on 11.20.07