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The traditional shrubbery is as quintessentially British as tea and crumpets, wet summers, tabloids filled with royal gossip and cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off.
In 19th-century English literature – and garden design – the shrubbery was where all the action happened.
These miniature woodlands bridged the aesthetic divide between the manicured borders and neat lawns around a house, and the pastures and forests beyond.
Shrubberies were originally a rather romantic concept, with gravel or grass paths overhung with craggy rhododendrons and fragrant lilac bushes.
But by the 1960s and 1970s they’d become a scoria-gravelled laughing stock, such a symbol of middle-class suburban snootiness that John Cleese and his cohorts saw fit to take the mickey out of them in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
I’ve been guilty of reverse shrubbery snobbery myself in the past. In my former city garden, I spent up large on fruit trees and flowering perennials and barely gave shrubs a second thought, aside from hydrangeas for picking and daphne for winter fragrance.
But since moving to the country, I’ve come to realise that you can’t have a large garden without shrubs. They are the meat in the sandwich, the cream in the Victoria sponge cake, the essential middle tier between groundcovers and trees.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a shrub as “a woody plant which is smaller than a tree and has several main stems arising at or near the ground”, which fits with my idea that shrubs are really just short, fat bushes that fill the gaps, keep weeds down and enable a sense of enclosure and intimacy within a wider landscape. The obvious candidates? Camellias, hydrangeas and rhododendrons.
For the past eight years, John Wilmshurst and Diana Montgomery have been developing their classy riverside garden, Waiongana.
Every year when they open for the Taranaki Garden Spectacular, visitors make a beeline for the herbaceous paeony beds but later in the season, a trio of hydrangeas provide plentiful pickings and a sophisticated backdrop for the weddings that are held here.
Diana jokingly describes Hydrangea paniculata ‘Kyushu’, Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight’ and Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ as her “three tenors”, as all are gutsy and gorgeous.
Unlike the big blobby flowers of the common mophead hydrangea, ‘Kyushu’ has conical flowerheads with creamy individual florets contrasted by the fluffiness of the buds yet to open, set off by glossy foliage.
“It’s a very sturdy, robust, upright shrub, growing up to 2m tall so it’s amazing when you need to make a floral installation big enough to fill up a marquee. ‘Kyushu’ also takes full sun without scorching and the rabbits don’t touch it.”
‘Limelight’ has similarly pointy blooms but its individual florets are smaller and a zesty bright green – over the course of the season, they fade to splotchy pink – while ‘Annabelle’ has perfect pompoms of pure white.
I also grow ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Kyushu’ at the back of my white garden, along with a fluffy fothergilla and fragrant philadelphus.
The fothergilla was a gift from a friend, while I planted philadelphus in memory of my grandmother Pat, who died before the cuttings she gave me from her Hamilton garden struck. Both of these shrubs are good fillers in the middle of a wide border or shrubbery.
Compact and deciduous (they put on a subtle show of autumn colour), fothergillas prefer acidic soil and sport unusual scented bottlebrush flowers. These don’t actually have petals, just masses of prominent white stamens.
Philadelphus, also known as mock orange, is taller and nondescript when not in bloom. Its late spring flowers have a citrus-blossom scent and white petals of such purity that plant breeders bestow their cultivars with names like ‘Innocence’, ‘Virginal’ and ‘Frosty Morn’.
Annual pruning is required as they flower on new wood, and will grow straggly if not cut back.
‘Frosty Morn’ and ‘Virginal’ are my favourites. Both have double flowers on the tips of their stems, with the former opening flat with a jagged fringe and the latter looking cupped. The intensity of the scent is incredible; a single sprig is as richly perfumed as a vase of Oriental lilies.
Though most of the flowering shrubs in my garden are deciduous, the silk tassel shrub, Garrya elliptica, is a notable evergreen exception.
Pretty isn’t a word I’d use to describe this novel shrub; its look is more haunted house, with peculiar strands of silvery catkins from late winter.
I suspect Nelson garden centres do a roaring trade in Garrya elliptica sales because the best specimen I’ve ever seen is in the garden at Eyebright Country Store in Appleby.
It’s so striking in late August and early September that Eyebright’s owner, Peter Owen, says customers are forever asking him to write its name down.
“In full flower it looks like an over-the-top Christmas tree, festooned with glorious racemes that grow to 15cm long and shower down pollen. Another good thing about it is that it doesn’t grow like fury,” adds Peter, whose plant has taken 13 years to reach 2.5m high and wide.
Hardy, handsome and well behaved: what more could you ask of a fella? It’s worth noting that Garrya elliptica is dioecious, meaning that it flowers on separate male and female plants. The blokes are better looking, with bigger catkins, so make sure you buy a male cultivar such as ‘James Roof’.
Back to deciduous bushes: if ever there was a shrub in dire need of a consumer-friendly common name, it must be Stachyurus praecox.
Like the silk tassel bush, it is strung with strands of bead-like buds that open to racemes of individual greeny-lemon flowers that bees appreciate. In a vase, the stems have a minimalist chic.
In common with Stachyurus praecox, wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox) awakens at the tail end of winter.
Praecox means “early to flower” and wintersweet is both a fragrant delight and a frustration for Geoff Genge at Marshwood Gardens in Invercargill.
“The first time I struck wintersweet was outside the old art gallery in Christchurch. You could smell it 100 yards away, like vanilla and jasmine and honey all mixed together with a touch of daphne. It was so wonderful that I came home and planted one against the wall of our house so we could open the windows and enjoy its sweet smell.”
Only problem being, in deepest Southland it’s too darned cold to fling open the windows when it’s in full bloom!
Nostalgia also motivated Geoff to plant the orange-red flowering quince, Chaenomeles japonica ‘Alarm’. When he was a lad at school in western Southland, he’d walk past the police station at Nightcaps and admire the apricot chaenomeles climbing over the front of the local copper’s house.
“Mine is in full flower in early September and because I’m forever trimming the sides to train it as a climber, it has never been without flower. It’s absolutely beautiful and attracts tui night and morning.”
In milder Waikanae, silvereyes and bellbirds flock to one of Julian Matthews’ favourite shrubs, the rusty-spiked Canary Island foxglove, Isoplexis canariensis. I’d never heard of it before but coveted it instantly, immediately ordering my own plant from Woodleigh Nursery in Taranaki.
“It’s an unusual and delightfully pleasing shrub,” says Julian. It’s hardy, copes with sandy soils, thrives in full sun or partial shade, gets to 1.5m and has deep orange flowers. Julian has paired it with complementary cannas outside his kitchen window.
He’s a fan of the silvery-fawn shrub Strobilanthes gossypinus, too, though it won’t tolerate poor drainage or the merest hint of frost. “Even here it gets nipped back in winter.”
It wouldn’t last a frosty winter at Pepper Tree Garden and Nursery in the Kauaeranga Valley, near Thames, where John and Trish Uffindell grow all manner of intriguing plants.
Trish has a tip for budding shrub hunters: make friends with a floral artist, for often they’re still growing many of the once-fashionable foliage plants no longer deemed desirable. And choose the shrubs that look interesting and give body to the mid part of a border.
One such beauty is the acid-loving calico bush, Kalmia latifolia. “When I was a kid in Whangarei, we called them icing plants,” says Trish, for the pink and white flowers look like a cake decorator’s exquisitely piped icing.
Just don’t be tempted to nibble on it; kalmias are so toxic to stock that their common name is “lamb kill”.
Like kalmias, most viburnums are nothing to look at until they flower. Nonetheless, at Barewood garden in the Awatere Valley, Carolyn Ferraby admits she’s “mad on them”. But which ones?
There are myriad deciduous viburnums to choose from, from the wedding cake white tiers of Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’, set off by its pleated foliage, to the antique pink pompoms of ‘Roseace’; baby pink ‘Molly Schroeder’, which maintains its colour all summer; and ‘Pink Beauty’, which starts out lime green and ages to soft pink.
For a flowering evergreen hedge, there’s Viburnum tinus ‘Eve Price’ (unless you live in the north, where it gets hammered by thrips) and while Viburnum x burkwoodii is sometimes described as “lax”, who cares if it gets a bit scrubby? Its ball-shaped blooms are intensely fragrant and the mix of hot pink buds and soft white flowers is absolutely charming.
Viburnums cope with sun, partial shade, clay soil and dry summers. “They are bulletproof,” says Carolyn.
Chinese lanterns (abutilons) are also tough as boots, so Julian can’t understand why they struggle for popularity, especially given that they flower in winter. At Sissinghurst, Vita Sackville-West kept one in a pot to bring indoors for Christmas colour. Far classier than a potted poinsettia.
Prune abutilons back if they get leggy or afflicted with borer, Julian advises, but if they’re looking good, leave them alone. They’re remarkably easy-care. Indeed, the hardest part of growing abutilons is finding the older, taller forms, but luckily they strike easily from summer cuttings.
“A nurseryman once told me that abutilons were boring shrubs that only grandmothers want to grow. But he’s not in business anymore,” says Julian with a wry chuckle.
Which shrub would you like to see making a comeback?
– NZ Gardener
Continue reading this article at the original source from Stuff.co.nz
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