Another plant that has finally been released from its pot is Albizia ‘Summer Chocolate’. This purple-leaved form of A. julibrissin was first discovered in 1990 as a seedling in Japan but was introduced after patenting in the USA, in 2003.
I have had the plant many years, languishing in a pot. Every year it made some growth but, after winter, died back. It is not much larger than it was when I got it about eight years ago. This is partly down to starvation but also cold winters. The ordinary species is questionably hardy but it also needs hot summers to fully ripen the wood and to encourage flowering. As such it is possibly best grown in a pot and protected in winter or plunged into the flower bed in summer for its fabulous, feathery foliage.
In the right conditions it will grow quickly and reach about 4m high and 3m across. The best Albizia julibrissin I ever saw were in the garden of the photographer Derek St Romaine in Chessington, Surrey where he has a row of the trees which, in August, are covered in the fluffy pink and white flower heads which drop to the ground producing a layer of ‘candy floss’. There is nothing else quite like it.
‘Summer Chocolate’ differs from the norm because of the dark brown leaves which emerge green. This spring (or summer – it started growth so late) the new growth was flushed pink and yellow which, though it looked lovely, gave me worries again about whether it was going to survive. My garden is not warm and it is very windy. Albizia julibrissin grows well by the coast but it really needs a warm wall to give of its best and I am not confident that it is going to like the garden. But it is now well travelled and it certainly won’t grow if I don’t plant it!
I am excited that there are small flower buds forming but it has done this before, to no avail, and it is getting late in the season. I have it next to a Clerodendrum trichotomum, another Chinese shrub that needs a hot summer. They will either enjoy each other’s company or both form a pact and give up.
It is a classic case of planting what suits your garden – this certainly doesn’t suit mine! But then I planted a small arbutus, thinking I was pushing my luck and it has been the shrub that has grown better than almost anything else. Arbutus and albizia in the same garden really is being foolishly optimistic. But then gardening is all about trial and error. Time will tell if this one is a mistake.