Trees frame the garden, perennials clothe it, but shrubs give it the bones that bring everything together.
Yet so many of these essential plants never make it into the landscape.
Shrubs like the exquisite Camellia × williamsii ‘Night Rider’ from New Zealand with its deep maroon red flowers and brilliant, reddish-purple new growth or vibrant, wildlife-friendly Elaeagnus pungens ‘Clemson Variegated’ are not being grown or only in small amounts.
“There’s so much that’s not in the trade or extremely hard to find,” according to Darcy Daniels, owner and designer at Bloomtown Gardens (Portland, Oregon) and creator of the website www.egardengo.com. “It’s supply and demand at work. Growers aren’t confident there’s a market for unusual plants. It’s a timing issue. They wait for demand and we wait for supply.”
Risk and reward
It’s the age-old question: If we grow it, will they buy it?
Ryan McEnaney, public relations and communications manager for Bailey Nurseries (St. Paul, Minnesota), thinks they will.
“It’s expensive for a grower to take on a new plant; there’s a lot of risk in it,” he admitted. “It’s not knowing if the consumer or designer is going to pick it up. They’ve got a list they know works, and it’s difficult to get them to branch out. That’s where marketing comes into play.”
Bailey relies on its sales force to act as ambassadors. Growers get excited, and, in turn, so do nurseries, garden centers and then the public. It’s all about networking, McEnaney said.
Still, he noted, a lot of the time it’s a guessing game. Consumers can be fickle. Bailey limits its risk by introducing new plants to their growers two years in advance. If the new addition gets a positive response, the nursery bumps up the production.
One shrub McEnaney would like to see in more garden centers is Exochorda × macrantha ‘The Bride’, or pearl bush, which he calls “just spectacular.” The small white buds look just like Grandma’s pearls and open into clusters of white flowers that turn it into a pillow of white for a good month in late spring when shoppers are heaviest at garden centers. At 4–5 feet tall and wide, pearl bush is an easygoing shrub that belongs at the back of a border or as a low hedge. This thrives-on-neglect plant is deer-resistant, drought-tolerant and pest-free.
So, why isn’t it more available?
One reason is that to add a plant to production, inventory must shift, said Maria Zampini, president of UpShoot LLC (Madison, Ohio). Nurseries, especially small ones, have to consider what they would give up if they decide to grow something new. The more unusual a plant, the harder the decision. They’re letting go of something tried and true for something they aren’t sure will make it off the production line.
However, if you have a shrub like Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Habari’ (aka ‘Chirimen’) it’s a no-brainer to grow it, said Cody Hahnien, sales manager for Youngblood Nursery Inc. (Salem, Oregon). A dwarf conifer that slowly grows to 3 feet tall, this false cypress boasts branches that grow like waving arms.
The habit is similar to C. lawsoniana ‘Wissel’s Saguaro’, but more upright than horizontal. It is also shorter and denser, with chartreuse new tip growth. If that isn’t enough, ‘Habari’ tolerates drought once established, is quite hardy (Zone 5a), and has few problems with pests.
“This is one of the kind of plants that when people see it, they say, ‘What is that?’ It’s the first thing that comes out of their mouth,” he said. “I have one in my garden. I put it out as a centerpiece. It’s a very cool and unusual. You want to show this one off.”
Jumping from false cypress to false holly, Hahnien pointed to Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Rotundifolius’ as a candidate for more attention. It does its name proud, growing short and rotund with glossy dark green foliage. It shines in the garden in winter and blooms in late fall to early winter when gray skies need some embellishment. And, as a bonus, the white flowers are very fragrant.
Unlike other Osmanthus, ‘Rotundifolius’ has no prickles. It’s imminently shearable and Hahnien says he prefers it as a hedge similar to boxwood rather than allowing it to grow to its full eight feet in 10 years.
“We’ve seen an uptick in interest at garden centers for this plant and our sales team has fallen in love with it,” he said. “This one has quickly become one of my most favorite of the Osmanthus we grow.”
Introducing an unusual plant can be chancy, but McEnaney said Bailey’s hydrangea Summer Crush™ in the Endless Summer® series was a good bet. The company thought it would be exciting because Summer Crush is the first reblooming hydrangea with vibrant raspberry red color. It was more than exciting. People went crazy for it.
“Shoppers came across the garden center to see it,” McEnaney said. “They were taking them off displays and handing them to customers. Talk about eye candy.”
Daniels has a hard time narrowing down her go-to shrubs, but one is Ilex crenata ‘Mariesii’, a slow-growing, upright shrub that tops out at 4 feet in 10 years, making it a perfect candidate for containers or an exclamation point in the garden. The tiny, round, evergreen leaves are held clutched to the branches, which, in turn, are held tight to the trunk. It’s similar to I. crenata ‘Sky Pencil’, but shorter and less troublesome.
According to Sean Hogan, owner of Cistus Nursery LLC (Portland, Oregon), people need to open themselves up to a more inclusive plant palette.“Why should we branch out?” Hogan asked. “Because we can. Because we live in a climate where we can grow such a huge palette of plants. Almost anything you want, you can have. Besides, I’m anti-narcolepsy. I’m tired of driving around and seeing the same thing over and over. We need visual stimulation.”
Because so many large Pacific Northwest nurseries grow for the East Coast, where most of the country’s population lives, they aren’t growing as many plants outside of what is typical, Hogan said. He understands the economic factors, but feels there’s still room for both traditional and unusual plants.
Sometimes uncommon plants are different versions of the same-old, same-old. “An example is Mahonia,” Hogan said. “People know Oregon grape. It gets a bit of a bad rap because of freeway plants tinted with herbicide, but there are so many cool species and new hybrids out.”
M. confusa ‘Cistus Silvers’ is a selection by Cistus that shows off platinum foliage with leaves 2–3 inches long that grow in rosettes around the trunk in typical Mahonia style. The 5-foot shrub shows off bronze new foliage and yellow flowers tinged copper in fall and winter. Use it as a focal point, Hogan recommends.
Another of his recommendations is the uncommon Pittosporum illicioides (also known as pittosporum), a graceful shrub that carries very long, thin leaves on floating horizontal branches. This bold-but-elegant plant can grow as big as 10 feet tall, but takes well to pruning. It’s so adaptable, it grows just about anywhere but in boggy soils.
Richie Steffen, director of the Elisabeth C. Miller Garden in Seattle, Washington and of the Great Plant Picks educational website, advocates for a wider range of shrubs because “the old stuff is boring. We live in a society that needs new things coming out. If you don’t have new things then you’re not with it.”
That doesn’t mean “new” is necessarily something that’s just come down the pipeline. “Here’s my theory,” Zampini said. “There are multiple definitions of new. It could be something you’ve never carried before or an older shrub that had some stupidly wrong name that no one could pronounce. Or, it didn’t get traction for some reason or other.”
Steffen would like customers to be able to a find a good variety of underrated shrubs on the market, including Comanthosphace stellipilum ‘October Moon’ (aka Leucosceptrum). Though small (3 feet) this Japanese bush mint can play a big role in the garden. An edge-of-woodland plant with bold serrated leaves edged with thick margins of chartreuse, ‘October Moon’ sends up short, upright spikes of lavender flowers in September.
‘October Moon’ would pair well with dark green, shiny foliage like Camellia japonica ‘Unryu’, another plant Steffens finds irresistible.
With its contorted stems, ‘Unryu’ is a camellia for people who don’t like camellias, he says. With cherry red flowers and interesting structure, this eye-catching plant is at its best as a centerpiece and would also take well to a Japanese-style garden. It gets about 6 feet tall, but slowly so can easily be grown in a pot. There’s no need to be shy about pruning this camellia to enhance its form.
More to choose from
Some would say we’ve got enough plants in our toolbox, but not Daniels. In fact, she’s something of a cheerleader for out-of-the-ordinary plants. One that she wishes was more available is Rhododendron ‘Cherries and Merlot’, a compact 3-foot-by-4-foot shrub that’s invaluable in today’s smaller gardens. The deep red indumentum keeps azalea lace bug away and the brilliant red flowers shimmer in the shade.
“I try to do my part to help introduce people to plants that are different and show them how to use them together so we can create the demand,” Daniels said. “I see myself as part of an engine that creates enthusiasm for unusual or overlooked plants. When you create demand, what follows is confidence from growers.”
That speaks to Hahnlen. “If other people don’t take the risk, we will,” he said.
Kym Pokorny is a garden writer with more than 20 years of experience writing for The Oregonian and other publications. She is currently a communications specialist with Oregon State University Extension Service. Kym can be reached at email@example.com.