Formidable photinia

I spent my formative gardening years dealing with chalky clay and made myself dislike ericaceous plants, primarily to save some semblance of sanity and convince myself that gardening was worthwhile. The odd camellia in a pot was a lot of work and destined for failure.

What I really admired was the bright spring growth and elegant flowers of pieris. Annual trips to the great gardens of Sussex, such as Wakehurst Place (showing off with the eponymous variety Pieris formosa) sated my desire for a week or so but left a longing that was impossible to ignore. Several decades on and I can now visit the magnificent gardens I once dared not hope to see and can indulge in the displays at Mount Congreve or Mount Usher. And now I have acid soil I hoped to have my own modest display. But the soil is still too untamed and regular late frosts burn off the new growths. My few attempts at growing pieris have left me with plants that look worse after two years, than when I bought them. I will persevere but I am not convinced I will succeed.

Being a pragmatist, I advocated the planting of Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ as an alternative and when I first saw it doing its ‘thing’ in April I wondered why anyone would bother with pieris. But familiarity has jaded my opinion and I no longer consider it a viable alternative – a kind of fool’s gold – the same colour but not the real thing. I know this is a kind of snobbishness and ‘Red Robin’ is so common here, often as a hedge. I am not wholly guilty of elitism but I confess that the first photinia to find a place in the garden is not ‘Red Robin’.

Photinias are closely related to pyracantha with five-petalled white flowers, like cotoneaster or crataegus. They can be deciduous or evergreen, are mostly Asian and the evergreens are not fussy about soil pH. Until ‘Red Robin’ the most common species was the plant now separated off into the genus Stranvaesia (on slight differences in the placement of the seeds in the fruit) and ‘Palette’ is widely available and liked by some (but not me) for the pink-splashed leaves. Photinia x fraseri is a hybrid of P. glabra (from Japan) and P. serrulata (now P. serratifolia) (from China) that was first produced in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1940s.

My plant is P. serratifolia and has established well. I love the jagged-toothed leaves and although the new foliage is often described as coppery bronze, I am happy with the bright colour of my plant. The flowers are said to be unpleasantly scented but my plant has not yet bloomed. It is potentially a large plant and I may have to prune it which will delay or prevent flowering but encourage bright, strong growth.

‘Bean’ was impressed by it and wrote ‘Native of China; first introduced by Captain Kirkpatrick of the East India Co., in 1804. Where it thrives, this is undoubtedly one of the finest evergreens ever introduced.’ I am inclined to agree.

In recent years, selections have been produced that offer ‘more’. The most common is ‘Pink Crispy’ which is basically variegated but with the red flush over the white it is a ‘confection’ of white, pink and green. I was tempted to plant it because it is new but I just couldn’t give valuable money for it – it is just horrible. The straight species is desirable for its spring foliage which matures to deep green with a bold and interesting outline that has presence in the garden, distinctly different from laurels and from ‘Red Robin’. It is interesting, to me, how it compares with the new Viburnum odoratissimum ‘Coppertop’ that I was enthusiastic about last autumn with its copper new growth. I bought one. It has not dealt with winter well and, despite being evergreen, is a bundle of dead sticks at the moment, having shed all its leaves in a fit of pique after the frosts in December. Maybe the warning signs were there because it was selected at a nursery in Florida! It may recover but the difference between the two plants is stark and at present I resent the space my pile of sticks occupies.

Totally unrelated, I am pleased to see flowers on my petasites. Roadsides in Ireland (though not around here) are usually smattered with the pale mauve, vanilla-scented flowers of winter heliotrope (Petasites pyrenaicus), followed by the large, round foliage. Though widespread, this is not a native. Plants are either male or female and it is thought that all the plants in Ireland are male so seeds are not set. It has spread from gardens into the wild by gardeners having a panic and chucking it out into hedges, where it has spread vegetatively over the centuries. (this is similar to the case with Japanese Knotweed which is also unable to set seed). Winter heliotrope is not something you really want in the garden but it is a valuable plant for early-flying bees so that, although introduced, it has its uses.

My Petasites japonicus ‘Giganteus’ (var. giganteus) is an unashamed thug and can be invasive. The main attraction is the foliage which is rounded and almost rhubarb-like in size. But the flowers are attractive, though they usually get damaged by frost here. I don’t think there is much scent – I just popped out to check and can’t detect much. It is a tricky plant to place, unless you have a large wooded area, because as well as being very likely to spread beyond its initial home, it needs moist soil and although mine is planted in an area that is wet in winter and the ‘moistest’ area in summer, it usually collapses in mid summer. It is also very palatable to snails which will crawl over hostas to get to it. So, three years after planting, I am at the stage where I still worry about it and look forward to what it can do. I know I will be moaning about it in a few years but, at present, the flowers and the prospect of large summer foliage is thrilling. There is a variegated form, ‘Nishiki-Buki’ with leaves streaked with butter yellow. Also vigorous, the leaf colouring is too much like weedkiller damage to appeal to me.

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5 Comments on “Formidable photinia”

  1. Paddy Tobin
    March 9, 2023 at 9:43 am #

    Brave man to bring petisites into the garden! I’m with you on the photinias; good plants!

  2. Laura Bloomsbury
    March 9, 2023 at 10:50 am #

    I like Photinias for all their common or garden overuse as hedging – some like your serratifolia are huge though (39ft eventually?)

    • thebikinggardener
      March 9, 2023 at 3:40 pm #

      I am not sure mine will make that size but it can try! To be honest, a tree that big with rich evergreen leaves and startling red new growth would be worth giving space to.

  3. tonytomeo
    March 9, 2023 at 8:43 pm #

    Common Fraser’s photinia is too common here. I was never keen on it. It lives in freeway medians, and generally performs well, and then suddenly dies unexpectedly. I suspect that most other people are not impressed by it either, which is why none of the cultivars have become popular yet. Some Fraser’s photinia live at work, and we ‘maintain’ them as necessary, but I would not add any more. I really should get acquainted with some of the cultivars.

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