Persistent Perennials

Lychnis coronaria - Rose Campion @DBG LAH 033We had our first hard freeze over a month ago. Most of the deciduous plants and perennials in my yard are now dormant—some with dry brown leaves still attached, others with bare stems. But remarkably, not everything looks dead. In fact, a surprising number of plants still sport green foliage.

I’ve often chosen or rejected a plant for my garden based on when it leafs out in the spring. Too early and the tender new leaves are withered by a late snow. Too late, and half the season is gone before the yard looks complete. But I never considered the other end of the season—how long will the plant stay green before going to sleep for the winter?


Rhus trilobata: A Winner by Any Name

Rhus trilobata_Three-leaf Sumac_DenverZoo_20091007_LAH_3355.nef

All summer, the shrub sat in the back corner of our yard, quietly filling the space between the fence and a dry creek bed. The olive-green leaves were a bit drab, but provided a nice, neutral backdrop for an adjacent Blue Mist Spirea (Caryopteris). The shrub had been a bit late to leaf out, and I was contemplating replacing it with something more interesting. I’m glad I waited. In the last few weeks, that inconspicuous shrub has suddenly become the star of the garden. (more…)

Applauding Leadplant

Amorpha canescens_Leadplant_DBG_LAH_0251

Sometimes I think of leadplant (Amorpha canescens) as the ugly duckling of xeric shrubs. It’s just not appreciated. Consider this quote from the Missouri Botanic Gardens (MBG) webpage:

A somewhat ordinary looking, small shrub with an attractive bloom but otherwise with no particularly outstanding landscape features. Good plant for naturalizing in a native or wildflower garden, prairie or meadow.


Fabulous Fernbush

Chamaebatiania millefolium - Fernbush_XG_20090720_LAH_7320From a distance, a blooming fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium)  resembles a lovely white lilac bush, but no lilac would be in bloom at this time of year. Growing to seven feet high and wide, these shapely shrubs are covered in upright sprays of showy white flowers from June through August. Individual blossoms are reminiscent of single roses, and attract bees and butterflies. Come autumn, the flowers are replaced by russet seed heads.

A closer inspection reveals reddish peeling bark and the aromatic, finely dissected leaves that give Fernbush its common name. Even in our cold climate, these leaves stay on the bush for most of the year; branches are bare for a mere three to four months each winter. Fall foliage is an attractive copper color.


Planting a Tree

Improper staking_LAH_5226How do you plant a new tree? Most people know to dig a hole “twice as wide and deep as the root ball” (according to the label I found hanging from the branches), then stick in the tree, making sure the roots are well buried. Amend the backfill with plenty of compost, pile it over the roots and tamp it down firmly. Finally, securely stake the thin trunk so it won’t wiggle in the wind. Right?


This advice was being questioned as far back as 1980, but it is still widely practiced, much to the detriment of the poor plants.


Pretty, Pretty Coralberry

Symphoricarpos x doorenbosii 'Kordes' Amethyst_Coralberry_DBG_LAH_3100fLots of plants have pretty flowers or showy berries, are drought tolerant, handle clay soil, take full sun or part shade, or tolerate deer browsing on them. But how many plants have all these qualities? Coralberries are clear winners when it comes to choosing plants for our gardens. In fact, the only drawback comes when we try to pronounce their scientific name: Symphoricarpos orbiculatus!

If you’re into plants, you might recognize the genus. Symphoricarpos also includes Snowberries, S. albus, and the plants are fairly similar.


Sweet, Sweet Honeysuckles

I sat me down to watch upon a bank
With ivy canopied and interwove
With flaunting honeysuckle. (John Milton)

Lonicera sempervirens_Honeysuckle_DBG_LAH_6903Mention honeysuckle, and we think of green hedgerows, sultry summer days, and childhoods spent picking the flowers and putting them in our mouths to suck out the sweet nectar. There are around 180 species in the genus Lonicera. Fast growing and tolerant of inhospitable conditions, honeysuckles have much to recommend them. Many are valuable landscape plants able to withstand Colorado’s challenging conditions while presenting us with beautiful flowers and berries adored by birds.


No Junipers for Me

Juniperus sabina 'Monna'_Calgary Carpet Juniper_DBG_LAH_4004I really don’t like junipers, but it’s not their fault. Rather, I blame the landscapers.

Think of the countless homeowners who plant Pfitzer junipers (Juniperus chinensis ‘Pfitzeraiana’) in front of their living room windows, then shear them to a fraction of their normal size. That’s not fair to the plant, it’s unattractive, and it makes a lot of work for the gardener.

Similarly, junipers are planted along sidewalks and in parking lots (where they tenaciously hang on despite compacting foot traffic and scorching summer heat). Quickly outgrowing the space allotted, they’re pruned at the edge of the pavement, resulting in a wall of dead, brown branches.


Finally, Manzanitas for Colorado!

Arctostaphylos x coloradensis_Mock Bearberry Manzanita_CarnegieLib-CoSpgsCO_LAH_9993Finally, manzanitas for Colorado gardeners! When we first moved to Colorado, back in 1993, I wanted to add some manzanitas to our ponderosa forest landscape, but the cultivars available weren’t deemed hardy enough for our 7000 foot elevation. I gave up and settled for Mahonia—not at all the same thing, but about the only broad-leafed evergreen I could get to grow in my yard.


Why Colorado Loves Japanese Barberry

Berberis thungergii_Japanese Barberry_DBG_LAH_6490Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is one of those plants that seems to show up in every Colorado landscape. From parking lots to office buildings, highway medians to front yards, it’s everywhere you look. When a shrub is used that much, we tend to become jaded to its finer qualities. But the fact that it thrives everywhere while managing to keep its attractive appearance is exactly why we see it in so many places. I admit to being a bit of a plant snob, ignoring barberry in favor of more glamorous shrubs. It was only as I was scrolling through my photos that I realized just how pretty Japanese barberry is.

Berberis thunbergii atropurpurea_Red Leaf Japanese Barberry_DBG_LAH_0620It’s a good thing that barberry keeps to a modest size—plants can grow up to six feet in diameter but usually only reach half that size here in Colorado. Pruning them can be a nightmare, as the arching branches are covered with nasty thorns. Chain mail and gauntlets are required. Leaves are small, as befits a drought-tolerant species, and come in red or green. Rather inconspicuous yellow spring flowers turn into pretty red berries in the fall. As the leaves turn crimson and orange and then fall, the berries take center stage, adding color and interest when most plants are fading away.

Berberis thunbergii - Japanese Barberry_DBG_10200118_LAH_7051.nefBarberry is one tough plant, a huge problem in the northeast where they’ve become invasive but a feature here in Colorado. They’re hardy in zones 4 through 8, and not fussy about soil or exposure. Cultivars with red leaves are more brilliant in full sun, but the plum red they turn in shade is just as pretty. Water regularly to get them established. After that, it’s all right to cut back a bit, although more water creates lusher growth and more berries. Shrubs will be much more attractive if allowed to develop their natural shape, pruned only to remove old, woody growth branches.

Berberis thunbergii - Japanese Barberry_DBG_10200118_LAH_7048Even the thorns can be a benefit. Deer tend to avoid them while small birds appreciate this well-defended roost, munching on the berries in safety. Planting these shrubs under a window forms a formidable deterrent to would-be burglars.

Barberries are subject to a number of pests and diseases, including scale insects, mites, Japanese weevils, canker, dieback, fungal leaf spots, powdery mildew, root rot, Verticillium wilt, and rusts. However, these are quite rare in our dry climate. Just don’t plant them where Verticillium wilt has been a problem in the past, as it persists in the soil.

Japanese Barberry might be a bit overplanted, but after considering its many assets it’s easy to see why.