Virtues: Charming tiny green leaves that turn bright red in fall. Unique and architectural pattern created by branches. Low, compact habit makes it a good groundcover shrub for small spaces, rock gardens, atop retaining walls, a mini railway garden. Suitable for slopes that need erosion control. Deer resistant.
Common name: Creeping cotoneaster, ‘Tom Thumb’ cotoneaster, ‘Little Gem’ cotoneaster
Botanical name: Cotoneaster adpressus ‘Tom Thumb’, syn. C. a. ‘Little Gem’
Foliage: Dark green leave are very small and broadly oval. Although the leaves are tiny, their quantity ensures good coverage and gives the plant a strong presence. Fall color is a strong red. Deciduous to semi-evergreen, dropping most of its leaves in winter.
Flowers: Unlike many cotoneasters, this plant rarely flowers or produces fruit. When flowering does occur, it is in late spring, with pink buds opening to tiny white flowers. Tiny red berries appear in fall if flowering has occurred.
Habit: Creeping, deciduous or semi-evergreen shrub typically 8 to 12 inches tall and 3 to 6 feet wide. Branches present an interesting herringbone pattern, with numerous small branches sprouting perpendicular to the main stems that come from the center of the plant. Stems can root to the ground as they creep.
Season: Year-round for texture and presence; spring through summer for green foliage; fall for red foliage.
Origin: This cotoneaster has a confused history. Most sources claim it originated as a sport (genetic mutation) of the species C. adpressus (creeping cotoneaster). Others say it is a sport of C. apiculatus (cranberry cotoneaster). Others believe it first occurred as a natural hybrid of these two species. A few plantsmen claim it is a sport of C. horizontalis. It shows certain traits of each of these three species. Whatever its exact genetic makeup, the names ‘Tom Thumb’ and ‘Little Gem’ refer to the same plant.
Cultivation: Grow in full sun to part shade. Tolerates a range of soil types provided drainage is good. Prefers regular moderate moisture but tolerates drought once established. Apply a thick mulch around the base of the plant and beneath the stems as they creep to prevent weeds. Site to allow it to creep and spread naturally to avoid having to prune, which can ruin the beautiful natural herringbone pattern of the branches and stems. Deer resistant. USDA Zones 4–7.
Choose shrubs and trees and learn how to maintain them with Trees, Shrubs & Hedges for Your Home.
Ground covers can stabilize soil, edge beds, replace turfgrass, block out weeds and much more. Choose the best ground covers for your garden with Covering Ground: Unexpected Ideas for Landscaping with Colorful, Low-maintenance Ground Covers by Barbara Ellis.
Looking for something a little more reliably evergreen than ‘Tom Thumb’? Check out Great Landscape Evergreens.