The soft blue flowers of caryopteris are not something I long for throughout the year. And caryopteris is not a shrub that I often dream of. And yet, at this time of year I am grateful for it. On paper it has a lot going for it. Bees and butterflies adore the flowers. It is hardy, has aromatic, small leaves that are perfectly respectable, if not thrilling, and at this time of year it is covered in dainty, powder blue flowers (according to cultivar). None are so vigorous that they will swamp all but the most diminutive of neighbours and it is easy to prune: being a late-flowering shrub you just prune it back as hard as you like, in March. Hard pruning every year gives you a slightly taller, more upright plant and lighter pruning allows it to spread around the midriff slightly. No pruning at all results in a straggly, open-centred plant that tells the world you don’t care!
Because it does not cast dense shade it is the perfect companion for autumn-flowering crocus, colchicums or nerines. This is really useful because, lovely though these bulbs are (I know crocus are corms!) they can be difficult to partner up in the garden. They all love sun and the dry conditions that caryopteris will tolerate. In fact, even spring bulbs would work because the expanding foliage of the caryopteris in spring would cover the dying bulb foliage. The relatively fine network of roots would stop you from digging up some precious species tulip too.
Like many fast-growing, late-blooming shrubs, caryopteris is not the longest-lived of plants. It is certainly most beautiful in its youth and middle age. Old plants that are regularly pruned are rather stumpy and ugly: the mass of flowers cover up a multitude of sins, like a plastering of foundation – they remind me of Barbara Cartland – you just can’t really hide the reality of old age. There are cultivars with yellow leaves and yellow-variegated leaves which are theoretically more interesting before flowering begins, but I have a hunch that I like this plant as a one-trick pony and would plant one (and will) just for the flowers. Because I can’t remember which cultivar this is I can’t give a rating but I would say that any garden with a sunny spot should have at least one caryopteris. Of course in spring I might change my mind.