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Flowering Shrubs All Season Long

Witch hazel

Hamamelis – witch hazel in mid-March

Many of us gardeners eventually come to embrace shrubs because we need a low maintenance garden. I believe that in my new town garden, I have gotten a shrub garden that requires less work, and works with the limitations of my soil and space.

I have concentrated on water loving shrubs like button bush, elderberry, and willow, but the shrub list is long.

The earliest shrub to bloom in our neighborhood is Hammamelis or witch hazel. My neighbor’s witch hazel grows in front of her house and those twirly golden flowers are brilliant in a landscape where there is so little color. They began blooming at the beginning of March.

Witch hazels can grow to about 15 feet with a pretty wide spread. They like well drained, loamy soil and lots of sun. They are natives, but there are cultivars in addition to the native bright yellow. Arnold’s Promise was introduced by the Arnold Arboretum about 40 years ago. It has the large fragrant flowers

Hamamelis x intermedia “Diane” blooms at the end of winter and has deep red flowers that will age to a copper tone. There is very little fragrance. This cultivar will be about 10 feet, wide and tall. “Jelena” is a coppery orange and also blooms in March.

Depending on what you read the size of these witch hazels seems to fluctuate.  I think we can count on between 10 to 15 feet. Pruning should be done after the blooms are done in the spring.

Pearl bush

Pearl bush

The common Pearl bush, (Exochorda racemosa) can grow to six feet or more, and is covered with white flowers in early May in zones 4-8. Cultivars like ‘Snow Day Surprise’, and ‘Snow Day Blizzard’, are easy to find in garden centers. These will grow to about three or four feet and will bloom profusely and beautifully in May. There is a lovely pearl bush on the Bridge of Flowers but I cannot be sure of the cultivar. It is a stunning spring bloomer.

Pearl bush will need pruning when the flowers fall off because it is a shrub that blooms on ‘old wood.’ That means the wood that will grow after pruning and will be ‘old’ the following spring when buds will set and bloom. If you prune a pearl bush in the spring, you will be throwing away all the spring buds.

The issue of old wood and new wood has confused many gardeners. I just attended the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners Spring Symposium and attended a talk by John Barry. Barry is a hydrangea lover and told us of the aggravation gardeners give themselves if they don’t understand old wood and new wood.

Mothlight hydrangea

Mothlight hydrangea

I have known these terms for a long time, but they confused me. In Heath my first hydrangea was MothLight. In my timidity I did not prune it much, I just cut out dead branches, or branches that crossed each other. Mothlight did not seem to care very much. It just grew and grew to a height of ten feet or more with a wide spread.

Barry said that was understandable. Mothlight is a hydrangea in the paniculata family. It blooms on new wood, and if you are not pruning it at all, it will keep growing and making that new wood to bloom every year.

The thrust of Barry’s talk was really about the new smaller hydrangeas that are so useful for people with smaller gardens. He gave suggestions.

One list was of new small hydrangeas in the Arborescens family which can tolerate some shade. These all bloom on new wood and should be pruned back to one or two feet in the very early spring, which is to say, now. They are hardy in our zone. Some gardeners may be familiar with Annabelle, a very popular ‘mophead’ with its large round flower. There are now two new similar cultivars. Invinciball has the biggest flowers and the sturdiest stems. Spirit II is the deliciously pink flowered Annabelle.

Hydrangea paniculata is also called Hardy Hydrangea. All the hydrangeas I have grown have been paniculatas. Limelight, Firelight and Angel’s Blush are all doing well in my South Border. Barry said that Arborescens and Paniculatas are just about fool proof in our area.

While I have full sized hydrangeas there are small paniculatas which have airier blossoms than arborescens.  Little Lime, with green flowers, will only grow to four feet. Little Quickfire has flowers that turn from white to pink over the summer on a four foot shrub. BoBo has the largest white flowers in this group.

Hydrangeas bloom all summer and into the fall.

Beauty bush - callicarpa

Callicarpa – Beauty bush

Callicarpa or American beauty bush is a relatively small shrub. It is said to grow to a height of three to six feet with an equal spread in zone 5 or 6 – 10. However, in our valley climate it will probably not grow much taller than three or four feet. A callicarpa has grown on the Bridge of Flowers for a number of years. I don’t know if the river provides some modifying warmth.

Beauty bush prefers a lot of sun and a well draining soil.

This small native shrub has insignificant white flowers in June. The real attraction in is the small purple fruits that appear in late August and last until hard frost.

Between the Rows   March 30, 2019