Partners in plants

Skimmia is one of the very few genera in either the plant or animal kingdom where the male is more attractive than the female. Peter Dowdall discusses the many forms of this winter-flowering plant. 

SEX is essential for the continuation of species — and it’s not just in the animal kingdom that male and female exist, no, the plant world too is made up of guys and gals.

Well, not quite, but there are several plants which are what’s called diocecious and produce male and female plants and rarely, (and with some species, never) a single plant with both male and female parts.

There are several very well-known plants that fall into this category like the Pussy willow — Salix caprea; Ginkgo biloba; Spotted Laurel;, Yew trees — Taxus baccatta; Ilex, or Holly species and, interestingly, Cannabis.

Because of this, it is always advisable to plant several varieties and species together to ensure pollination. Some of these plants will produce monocecious or self-fertile forms and one that I haven’t mentioned and is a genus very much of this season in the garden, is Skimmia.

If you have been growing Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ happily for years and think that the beautiful form is all that it has to offer, then think again. There are dozens of varieties of Skimmia, all similar but all different. They mostly produce flower buds in late autumn which stay on the plant throughout the winter, opening up early in the new year to scented white flowers.

Where they will vary is in height, spread, form, flower colour and in the case of ‘Magic Marlot’, foliage colour. ‘Rubella’ is red in bud and dark green in leaf making it a must for the Christmas garden and loved by flower arrangers and wreath makers alike. It’s a male form which will pollinate the female forms such as ‘Nymans’ or ‘Kew Green’.

Skimmia is one of the very few genera in either the plant or animal kingdom where the male is probably more attractive than the female. There are already some self fertile Skimmia — keep an eye out for Reevesiana which will stay very low to the ground and will produce longer leaves and clusters of bright red berries. ‘Obsession’ will grow to about 1.5m (5’) and ‘Temptation’ will get to about 90cm (3’) and both of these cultivars are self fertile and the result of many years of careful selection and breeding.

They are native to China, Japan and Korea and many come from mountainous regions — so it’s no surprise they will tolerate any cold weather in this part of the world. Many English and common names are translations of the Latin botanical name, but not so here where Skimmia is short forJapanese Illicium religiosum – Japanese Star Anise.

All parts of the Skimmia are strongly scented: it likes a neutral to acidic soil, in other words a low pH. If the leaves start to go a bit pale and yellow then the chances are that the plant is lacking in iron due to growing in the wrong pH. This can normally be counteracted by using a good sequestered iron during the spring and summer. Similar to Camellias, Rhodos and Magnolias they set their flower buds for next spring this autumn, and so the autumn is a good time to feed with sulphate of potash or similar, to encourage flower and later berry production.

One variety that I have absolutely fallen in love with in recent years is ‘’Magic Marlot’. A beautifully variegated, low growing plant, it is a compact grower, never likely to outgrow its space. Ideal in a rock or scree garden or equally impressive in a pot or container, it reaches a maximum height of just 50cm (18”).

Red flower buds are produced in clusters during the late autumn and stay atop the cream and green variegated foliage. There is something and everything about this plant that I adore, it’s form, it’s colouring, it’s scent, it’s size, it’s habit. It’s another male form and so won’t produce berries itself but will be an able pollinator for any females.

All Skimmia like a semi-shaded position with a rich soil and will tolerate some drought which could be important if next summer is to be like the last two, and also as water is fast becoming a costly commodity.


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