Gardening with Enkianthus Shrubs

There are two separate and unequal approaches plants use to attract insects—and gardeners. First, there are the shameless hussies of the botanical world. Brazen and unabashed, they are the denizens of the in-your-face garden. Those of us who consider ourselves to be “in the garden know” proudly reject such audacity. We tell our garden friends that we prefer the bark of the ‘Okame’ cherry over its showy cerise blooms. We scoff at the blazing reds and pinks of the ubiquitous evergreen azaleas. But late in the evening, when our neighbors have gone to bed, we secretly venture out and quietly covet their horticultural ladies of the night.

Other plants, meanwhile, take a softer approach. They might be considered horticultural wallflowers—quietly sitting out the waltz, but glowing with a grace and charm just beneath the surface. In a world of garden hussies and wallflowers, members of the genus Enkianthus would most certainly stand with the latter.

YEAR-ROUND APPEAL

Enkianthus species—there are some 8 to 10, depending on whether one is a taxonomic splitter or lumper—are a dainty lot Primarily from the Himalayas, across Asia to Japan and Korea, they generally whisper their presence in the garden with fine, understated features and quiet elegance. The alternately arranged leaves are generally not more than three inches long and range from narrow ovate to rhombic. They can be an almost shiny bright green, as in white enkianthus (Enkianthus perulatus), to the rather dull deep jade seen in redvein enkianthus (E. campanulatus). And while there can be considerable variation from one seedling to another, fall foliage is generally the showiest feature of the genus, ranging from dear yellows to brilliant reds.

Flowers appear in early summer (May to June), in delicately pendant racemes that emerge from the terminal bud of the previous seasons growth. Their color can range from pure white to creamy yellow to deep crimson. Many have five longitudinal veins of yellow to pink or red—hence the common name of the flagship species, redvein enkianthus. And as the specific epithet of redvein enkianthus (campanulatus) suggests, the one-third- to one-half-inch flowers are bell shaped.

GROWING ENKIANTHUS

While most enkianthus are considered to be rather small, fine-featured shrubs, the truth of the matter is that they can range considerably in growth habit. The smallest of the lot, E. perulatus ‘Compacta’, will generally not grow more than 15 inches tall and 20 to 24 inches wide, and it takes its own sweet time getting there—not a plant for those who shy away from green bananas. Meanwhile, E. campanulatus can grow to 15 feet or more in the land-scape, and E. H. “Chinese” Wilson described specimens of more than 24 feet tall in the wild. The smaller forms are delicately and densely branched little mounds in the garden. Most of the larger forms show exquisitely layered branching and can approach small-tree proportions. Although it takes considerable time for them to reach the higher limits of the range, producing a large specimen limbed up to a small, multitrunked tree should be among the loftier aspirations of all gardeners.

All enkianthus species might be best described as tending a bit toward the diva end of the spectrum when it comes to culture. The gardener who tries to coax resplendent growth from a heavy, dry, or nonacidic soil, might be just as successful trying to educate their nongardening partners on the Zen-like benefits of pulling weeds. Moist, acidic soil rich in organic matter is the order of the day here. In poorly drained soils, especially in the South, raised beds are well worth the effort. In the northern part of their range, full sun will work, provided the water isn’t spared. As one proceeds south, afternoon shade is a must.

SPECIES FOR THE GARDEN

Enkianthus are up close and personal plants. Their fine details are lost on the observer positioned more than a few paces distant. This is especially true of the red-flowering forms. Placement at the edge of a patio or garden path makes for best viewing.

Redvein enkianthus is among the largest of the group, sometimes growing to 10 or 15 feet tall, with an upright oval outline. Leaves are narrow ovate and up to three inches long. Flowers range from creamy yellow to deep red, usually with prominent veins. The most recent season’s stem growth can remain a bright red through the winter, offering an additional fine detail for the winter-weary gardener. Redvein is among the most cold tolerant of all enkianthus. Several outstanding eight- to ten-foot-tall specimens grew outside my office window at the University of Maine—a solid USDA Zone 4. Depending on seed source, however, they can range in hardiness from Zone 4 to 5b.

Enkianthus cernuus is generally a smaller growing form, seldom more than five to seven feet tall, and generally of finer texture than redvein enkianthus. The leaves are less than one-and-a-half inches long and rather more rhombic than narrow ovate. The flowers tend to the creamy white end of the spectrum and have limited or no veining. This species offers large clusters of up to 12 or so flowers per raceme, but each flower is considerably smaller than those of redvein enkianthus. The red-flowering form, E. cernuus f. rubens, is an outstanding little grower with deep, almost velvety red flowers and rather slow growth. Enkianthus cernuus is generally considered a Zone 5–7 plant.

White enkianthus (E. perulatus) is probably my favorite of the group. This diminutive species makes a densely and daintily branched spreading shrub, growing to about five to six feet tall. Flowers are almost pure white and lack the veining seen in other enkianthus species. Fall color can range from a weak yellow orange to a screaming crimson. There is considerable room for selection work here.

White enkianthus may also be the most culturally adaptable of the species. I have seen lovely specimens growing in difficult, heavy soil conditions without much supplemental irrigation down in northern Kentucky, where I garden now. I certainly wouldn’t throw it in a supermarket parking lot planting, but it might save a little gnashing of teeth compared to some of the other enkianthus. Like most others, this enkianthus should be moved as a small plant—large specimens transplant very poorly. White enkianthus grows best in Zones 5–7.

Overall, this is a high quality group of garden plants. They are delicately featured and, once established, dependable. Quiet beauties, they create balance in our gardens—because even the most self-controlled among us occasionally heed the call of bolder horticultural pleasures.

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