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Is That Too Much to Ask?

My Dream List for Landscape Plant Material

pieris, dorothy wycoff pieris

I’d like to see the nursery production industry make some newsworthy new offerings to supplement the amazing variety plants from which we have to choose. Here is my dream list from an ornamental landscape designer’s perspective. I understand I am asking too much, but it would be great to see more of these plants in the trade. Do you have anything to add to the list?

• Smaller, shorter cultivars of native tall shrubs that would be serviceable in ornamental landscapes.

• Any woody plant material that grows well and stays under two feet tall—something to use under windows in foundation plantings that isn’t a Juniper. The current short list selection for sun is either not very vigorous or invasive. An extensive selection of one-and-a-half-foot shrubs could bring back parterre gardens!

• Any sturdy, woody, evergreen plant material that grows well and stays under three feet tall—something to make a nice, perfect, low hedge without the pruning commitment. I’m tired of pruning.

• Anything that grows narrow and stays under six feet tall—something interesting with some slim height to plant adjacent to a front door—more ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ Pieris types.

• Something dense and evergreen for deep shade. Aucuba sp. and Morella sp. need some company to compete with trees in heavy, dry shade. We need more Cast-Iron-Plant types.


A Native Plant Worth Finding

Winecup, Callirhoe involucrata, Purple Poppy Mallow, is a survivor. 

I developed a fondness for Winecup, based on respect.  Winecup is a great plant for dry, partly sunny areas. I know the plant is a survivor based on the abuse and neglect I showered on mine.  I should have planted my Winecup in well-drained soil. Instead, I plopped it into dry clay under some Pines.  It typically suffers crown rot in poorly drained areas. Maybe the fact that I planted it rather high prevented that from happening.  I would suggest better treatment for such a fine plant.

The first year after the blooms were gone and the woody stems were obscured by pine needles, I forgot about it. When new leaves emerged the next spring, I yanked out the struggling stems, thinking it was either a Mugwort or Wild Geranium. Of course, a moment later, I realized my mistake.  It was a delightful surprise to see it return more vigorously later in the year.

See-through Shrubs

Native Azaleas

Native Azaleas are essentially "see through" shrubs for most of the year. Loose, open branches and sparse foliage provide little visual impact in the landscape. There is a brief moment each spring, however, when native Azaleas become delicate, dancing fairies. Floating bits of color are suspended right at eye level like butterflies frozen in time. When native Azaleas bloom, they have all the magic of a carefully constructed floral arrangement.

Most native Azaleas are growing as under story in a woodland setting, where they have to survive in dry shade. Some varieties handle the water stress better than others. I have found that the Sweet, Piedmont, Flame, Florida, and Plumleaf species are the most reliable. The others seem to need special nurturing and attention and languish in the dry heavy red clay of a typical Pine woods.

The Swamp Azalea and a few other high-maintenance species can handle slightly wet feet, but they are very tricky to keep alive.

Some of my favorites are listed below:

Sweet (Smooth) Azalea - Rhododendron arborescens - fragrant, 8' tall, white with red stamens, late spring blooming form and summer blooming form

Piedmont (Hoary) (Florida Pinxter) Azalea - Rhododendron canescens - slightly fragrant, 15', light to dark pink, early spring bloom

Flame Azalea - Rhododendron calendulaceum - 10', red to orange to yellow-orange, mid spring bloomer

Oconee Azalea - Rhododendron flammeum (R. speciosum) - 8', mid spring bloom, orange-red to orange

Florida Azalea - Rhododendron austrinum - 10', slightly fragrant, yellow to orange, early spring bloom

Plumleaf Azalea - Rhododendron prunifolium - 15', orange-red, summer bloom

Alabama azalea (Rhododendron alabamense) – 8’, white with a yellow blotch, late April

The Different Sizes of Shrubs

Enclose, Define, Edge, and Carpet

After you have drawn your base map, included the necessary circulation ways, and determined where the trees will be located, you can start building patterns and definition to your design with shrubs. A good, logical way to do this is to design with shrubs by height category. By incorporating shrub masses by size, you can delineate enclosure and screening to build outdoor rooms within the site. You can establish living mulch areas. You can build color blocks with contrasting backdrops and create multilevel echoes of color that excite the viewer. You can hide naked stems and hide messy plant beds. You can prevent maintenance burdens. You can open views. Categorizing shrubs by size is a really handy tool for landscape design!