|I sincerely wish that architects and landscapers would help their clients appreciate Elaeagnus by using it as a background plant instead of a clipped hedge in their designs. He can be a thorny rascal up close with a spikey bunch of whiplike stems going every which way all through the growing season. If planted en masse too close to people areas, the temptation is to prune constantly to keep them under control. When that’s necessary, they flower less and deprive the owner of their elegant aromas. Fewer fruit are the result and that deprives the birds who flock to them. Best of all, when planted as a dense baffle at the rear of a border or large bed, their wild form creates an attractive thicket to shelter birds and other wildlife in the garden.
Wherever you live in Mississippi, there’s an Elaeagnus (say ee lee ag’ nus) waiting to dominate some part of your landscape. They’re big, bold, and deliver surprises to anyone nearby when the flowers open – they smell like the finest perfume you could buy. My guru Neil Odenwald says they smell ‘gardenialike’. Depending on your zone, one of these will become your best friend.
Beginning ‘up north’, in USDA Zone 7, E. angustifolia (Russian Olive) can climb to 20 feet tall and sprawl, occasionally pruned to hold it down to about 12x12, or be trained into a small tree. The plant gets its common name from the berries, which do sort of look like olives. You may not see the little green flowers, but their fragrance fills the air in early summer, then winter features red-brown bark that seems to have been pulled from the branches like the pork on a good barbeque sandwich. Too often, this plant gets abused – shoved into a space to fit half its needs and butchered regularly to maintain as a hedge at hip height. With that treatment, the handsome Russian doesn’t impress, but is functional – its often thorny branches make a very dense barrier. This plant does not perform as well in mild winters and very humid summers.
South from the central part of the state, E. pungens and its child, the hybrid E. x Ebbingei, take the humidity, will bloom and set berries even in very mild winters. These plants are also called Russian Olive, but E. pungens is known widely as Silverberry, which makes a fast growing barrier plant with slightly ruffled, grayish green leaves and the trademark nearly leafless whips. Its progeny, including E. x Ebbingei, are more attractive in the landscape, but not as vigorous as the parent. Selections of Silverberry abound in the nursery trade and their common names explain their features: golden elaeagnus (E. pungens ‘Maculata’), silver-edge elaeagnus (‘Marginata’), and yellow-edge ( Aurea’). ‘Sunset’ is a solid yellow and ‘Fruitlandi’ has rounder leaves than the species in rich green shades. When growing any of the selections, be sure to prune out completely any stems that revert to solid green.
Flowering in fall, the dense E. x Ebbingei offers silver under green leaves and produces red ‘olives’ with a lovely silver sheen to them. Birds like them, and so do people, who make them into jelly. Silverberry blooms a bit later and its fruit seem to be the biggest bird draw. As a group, Elaeagnus has few drawbacks – the plants tolerate beach and urban conditions well, host no major pests, need but one or two applications of fertilizer each year, and can grow in full sun with minimal applications of water. All can be easily propagated from semi hardwood or hardwood cuttings, or by layering, and grow fairly rapidly in the garden.
Some selections of Elaeagnus are brown on the lower leaf, others are silver – the difference in the garden is the difference between a 60 watt bulb and one that delivers 100. If you want the Elaeagnus to do its work as a screen and be quiet, look for green with brown underneath the leaves. But if you’ve got room in your heart for a rascal that attracts attention, go for leaves with silver undersides. With just the slightest breeze, their effect is why people hang mirrors on fishing line in the garden – to catch the sun and your eye. And when it’s Elaeagnus, that breeze will catch your nose, too, with unforgettable fragrance.
Pittosporum tobira or as we know it, Japanese pittosporum, is a fantastic shrub for central and south Mississippi and makes a fine, longterm container plant in the North with minimal protection. I’m crazy about the variegated and dwarf types and even like the flowers. I can also attest to their incredible will to live. My hedge got wider than I expected, putting it too close to the burn pit. More than once it has gotten singed and each time, I cut off the damage regardless of the season. I’m happy to report that it always comes back, thicker and leafier than before. If only my hair had done that after that unfortunate perm…
In the heat of summer, it’s great to see a good-looking shrub. Too many evergreens get a dull sheen when heat and drought prevail, but not Japanese pittosporum (P. tobira). Hedges, screens, foundation plantings, even treeforms of pittosporum stay shiny in at least two shades of green on gently rounded leaves. Older leaves are nearly forest green, while new growth and younger leaves are much lighter toned. The pleasing texture of pittosporum and its warm colors are a welcome relief to landscapes so often dominated by darker, sharper textured ligustrum and cleyera. Unusually rounded and soft-looking, pittosporum delivers a touch of class when grown among its peers as a mixed hedge. Planted alternately with azaleas or spireas, it holds its own for both form and flowers.
In shady gardens, pittosporum brightens dry spaces under trees and makes a contrasting backdrop for hostas and Lenten roses (Helleborus orientalis). Planted among camellias, pittosporum continues the evergreen theme and rounded shapes, but delivers its flowers in late spring. Growth will be slightly less compact, so sometimes pittosporum in shade can reach 20 feet tall. Large pitts can be limbed up into very attractive treeforms, or left as huge masses to soften the corner of a house, or screen out the garage.
Out in the sun, even at the beach, pittosporum positively glows all summer long. Tolerant of salt spray, drought, and heat, it is an excellent plant for the bed by the driveway, where reflected sunlight from the concrete makes the conditions tough for most shrubs. Pittosporum will grow almost anywhere, so long as the soil drains well. Provide water weekly during the first year to get the plants established, but after that, rainfall should suffice in all but the driest years. In fact, plant pittosporum at the back of the perennial border for its bold backdrop, but save the soaker hose for other plants.
Pittosporums are usually pruned in early spring to encourage the glossy, light green new growth, to shape and keep the shrubs dense in form. But that denies the creamy white flower clusters and sweet citrus fragrance in April and May – so prune after flowering and fertilize then with a balanced, slow release shrub formula fertilizer.
Perhaps pittosporum fell out of favor when ranch style houses and slab foundations lowered the ceilings and windows in most homes. No longer did landscape designers need big-bottomed shrubs to screen the pilings holding the house up off the ground. Pittosporum tobira will overgrow the windows in just a few years. Those who dislike pruning or find tall shrubs a security problem should plant ‘Wheeler’s dwarf’. Though still shaped rather like a Hershey kiss, this one matures at about 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide.
Broadleaf evergreens are not hard to find or grow, but they have a reputation for being boring to look at. Not so with pittosporums, but especially not so with the painted leaf varieties like P. tobira ‘Variegata’. Its leaf centers are almost gray with green giving way to white edges that look feathered. The effect is more delicate than the species or dwarf pittosporum, and its flowers are as fragrant as any others. It is an excellent container plant.
If it gets out of control, or you inherit a huge pittosporum, the shrubs will rebound quickly from heavy rejuvenative pruning with more water and fertilizer than needed to maintain healthy plants. Water once a week and use the shrub formula as often as the label allows for maximum growth on pittosporums cut back by more than half their height.
Parts of this blog were included in articles I wrote for MS Gardener magazine in the 1990’s.