Winter and early spring is a bit devoid of colourful shrubs so we should embrace anything that can entertain us out in the garden. Hamamelis are finished for the year now and, because of the mild winter, Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ hasn’t many buds left for spring. The ubiquitous Ribes sanguineum and the numerous but, perhaps, tediously similar clones of forsythia are still do do their stints on duty in the garden so anything in flower now I am bound to pounce on like a cat on a mouse.
To the beginner gardener ribes means the pink-flowered Ribes sanguineum and to the more experienced it may mean a more select cultivar such as ‘White Icicle’ (yummy) or the yellow-leaved ‘Brocklebankii’ (which I should loath but actually love – yellow leaves and pink flowers being my least favourite combination). And perhaps a little more knowledge reveals that these are all related to red currants, blackcurrants and gooseberries. But there are more than 100 ribes species, found around the northern hemisphere and, although some have very little ornamental value, some are undeservedly neglected.
I feel this applies to Ribes laurifolium from western China, a hardy, evergreen species that is in bloom now. It is a curious plant to those of us who are more used to seeing and growing the species listed above. Those thick, slightly shiny evergreen leaves set it apart for a start. And they are held on red petioles (leaf stalks) and stems so it is not a bad looking plant out of bloom. But (and there will be a couple of buts!) it has a rather inelegant habit. If I was being kind I would say that the stems are sinuous but then you would complain that it is not so much sinuous as untidy or rangy. The stems do not branch enough and grow too long and flop over the soil where, admittedly, they will root and help the plant spread but I could not call this a neat plant. It is often said to reach 1m high but that seems unlikely unless it has something to grow through. It is good at the front of a border and would be great creeping over rocks or on a bank. It is not too fussy about soil and grows in sun or part shade but if it is too dark it will be more straggly and will flower less.
Fat buds open into clusters of small, cupshaped flowers the colour of pistachio icecream. Unusually for ribes, plants are dioecious, plants having male or female flowers. Male flowers are the most showy but if you have a female plant (and a male) you will get black berries that birds will thank you for. It is unlikely that your garden centre will tell you what sex your plants are but most are males, with five tiny petals and five stamens. There exists hermaphrodite clones that are worth buying if you see them but don’t pass by the ordinary plant. ‘Mrs Amy Doncaster’ is reputed to be more compact and ‘Rosemoor Form’ is hermaphrodite. I have never grown anything but the ‘common’ male form so cannot say if these are better.
Most references say that the flowers are scented. My nose is usually quite good but I have never noticed any fragrance and I double-checked today and nope – nothing at all.
I think it would be sensible to give this a little prune after flowering every year, simply pinching out or snapping off the terminal shoots to encourage a bushier habit. If you let it grow unchecked it will sprawl but where it touches the ground it will at least root so you can chop off layered shoots and give plants to friends.
This is a plant that has a lot of creative potential. It would be wonderful swirling around some red cornus stems, and surrounded by hellebores and small bulbs. For a green theme underplant it with primula ‘Francesca’ and appropriate hellebores or dress it up with some variegated Vinca major. There is lots of fun to be had here.