It would be foolish to discount all evergreen plants when seeking autumn variety, says Peter Dowdall.
You could be mistaken for thinking that all foliage colour comes from deciduous plants during the autumn before leaf fall.
While it’s true to say that the spectacular display of autumn colour which we have been enjoying over the last few weeks is provided by trees and shrubs before they divest themselves of their seasonal garb before standing naked through the winter, it would be foolish to discount all evergreen plants in terms of seasonal interest.
When the autumn has passed and the winter takes hold of our landscape, it’s not just nice — but essential — to have some evergreen presence in our gardens. They provide a home and offer food to so much wildlife it would be wrong not to include them in any garden plan.
We don’t help the wildlife just to feel good about ourselves, rather the more we help the good guys in the garden the more they will thank us and the more success we will have from our gardening efforts.
From the bees who pollinate our plants and give us better blooms and more bountiful harvests to the thrush who will feast on snails, banging them against the ground to get his snack, the more of these we can encourage to set up home in our outdoor room the better our gardens will be.
Many evergreen plants offer nothing, or at least very little, in terms of seasonal change. However, there are some that not only refute that statement but actually fly completely in the face of it, offering as much autumn and winter colour as the best deciduous specimen.
Leucothoe is a genus of about 50 species, two of which, L. fontanesiana and L. axillaris are popular in Ireland. These are evergreen shrubs and they offer a number of cultivars which range in height from about 50cm up to 2m-3m.
They do like an acid soil and whilst text-books will tell you that they will do well in semi-shade I have always had the best results in foliage colour when I grow them in a position of full sun.
Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’ is possibly the best known of the cultivars and it’s a real treasure. It will grow to about a metre in height and allow the same space around the plant for it has a lovely upright habit with slightly arching stems and I like to grow it where you can admire the overall shape and form of the plant and not just for the foliage effect though what an effect that is!
The leaves, which are a mid-green with slight mottling and variegation during the summer months, take on many different colours during the winter months. Primarily a deep, mahogany red colour but each leaf is splashed with different shades of cream, pink and even yellow when it’s doing its thing.
Sounds like it should be a bit too bright and garish but it’s not, it’s actually quite a spectacular display and it’s a plant that I wouldn’t be without.
Its flowers are long, catkin-like blooms produced during the summer and liked by bees and other pollinators and though easily overlooked as so much else is happening during that high-season in the garden, they too make this a plant worth its place.
All Leucothoes like a slightly acidic soil, being from the same family of plants as Erica, the genus which contains many of our much loved heathers and in fact the root of the word, Ericaceous, meaning acid loving or plants which need a low, pH.
A lower-growing and bushier form and another real beauty is Leucothoe axillaris ‘Curly Red’. As the name suggests the leaves are contorted giving the plant the effect of having just had the hair curlers removed.
The plant itself is much more dense and bushy than ‘Rainbow’ and the foliage, green with some red during the summer changes to a most beautiful burgundy, blood red during the autumn and winter, maintaining this colour right into the following spring when the new growth starts once more
L. ‘Scarletta’ also referred to as “zeblid” is another beautiful low growing red cultivar and recent years has seen the introduction of many new varieties including the really striking Whitewater.
This form is quite different to most Leucothoes as, whilst the leaves do take on the familiar red colouring during the winter, it is just as impressive during the spring and summer months as the green leaves which have a very defined, creamy white margin are quite a sight along with the many flowers which are produced form April to June.
Pruning Leucothoes is normally not needed if grown in the correct position and given enough space as they are not overly vigorous. They can be cut back lightly if needed, in late winter or early spring.