Better Than Ever Shrubs

Friday, September 30, 2011
Lorapetalum dominates the front lip of my front bed, a treeform that I can snip and clip endlessly without interrupting its flowers. But it is a pain, and I wish I’d had the option of the newer varieties with less overall size, like Purple Pixie, introduced by the Southern Living Plant Collection. There are more, red flowered on purple leaves, white with green foliage, in sizes from small to large. Like crepe myrtles, there’s no longer an excuse for the ‘oops, too big’ problem. I suppose we have to thank Richard Nixon for this wonderful plant. If he hadn’t gone to China when he did, a host of wonderful varieties might not ever have made it to the international trade scene. Pictures and cut stems of exotic looking Lorapetalum decorated a Chinese exhibition that traveled the US in the 80’s, but the plants themselves arrived about 1990. When I first spotted one, it was labeled only L. chinense and “Razzleberri” which didn’t enlighten me much at the time. But I was dazzled, all right, by the shocking pink flowers, inch-long, twisted petals by the dozens exploding all along each stem. This is not your mother’s old ‘Chinese witch hazel’ that I’m referring to, the Lorapetalum of houses where one big shrub dominates the sideyard. That one is the creamy white-flowered, huge (6’-10’ x 5 feet wide) mound of stems still seen in a few places around the state. It makes a nice addition to the early spring garden, blooming along with Quince and Forsythia. The ‘rubrum’ varieties feature either hot pink or red flowers and offer a variety of mature heights. Both color and size make them ideal for modern, smaller gardens and for plantings around living spaces like patios and decks. Variety and trademark names abound, but the hot pink flowered Lorapetalums are divided into two types: ‘Blush’ has bronzey purplish new leaves while the ‘Burgundy’ type features purplish red new growth. The red-flowered types have leaves in the darkest reds and purplish-black. All bloom later in the spring and for longer than the species, with some flowers present throughout the summer. All kinds of Lorapetalum grow equally well in sun or part shade, and best of all, leaf color doesn’t suffer much in either exposure if the plants are watered regularly and fertilized annually in spring and summer. Pruning is only necessary to shape the bushes occasionally and should be avoided so the natural forms can prevail. Selecting the right size Lorapetalum for your site gives you abundant flowers – overpruning not only ruins the shrub’s shape, but can delay or prevent bud development. The large, upright Lorapetalums include ‘Bicolor’ with white petals striped pink, ‘Fire Dance’ (hot pink), and ‘Zhouzhou Fuchsia’, with red-pink flowers and narrower, very dark purple leaves. These rival the species for size and spread, so make excellent choices for the back of large border plantings. Middle-size Loras reach 4-6 feet tall and spread as wide or a bit wider. ‘Plum Delight’, ‘Ruby’, Sizzlin’ Pink’, and the ‘Razzleberri’ that grabbed me make their home anywhere a flowering shrub is desired. But even when not in bloom, the simple alternate leaves fill spreading branches in a neat, attractive habit. Some are rounded, other slightly narrower and more pointed, but all are evergreen (or ever purple). Perhaps the best news about Redleaf Chinese Lorapetalums is their availability. Easy to propagate commercially and relatively fast growing, the entire group awaits your selection at a nursery near you. Consider them to replace a dead azalea, to fill a sunny foundation planting, or to bring color to a shady corner. For those of you who admire Dr. Michael Dirr as I do, it is neat to note that in 2002 he wrote of lorapetalum, ““Easy to manage, unbelievably drought tolerant, and pest free. I consider it to be one of the top introductions of the past ten years.” He’s right, and I say, they’re only getting better. *Some of this material was included in an article I wrote for MS Gardener magazine.
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