As I mentioned recently, my daughter sent me a photo of some shrubs planted outside her local Starbucks. Starbucks seems to take landscaping cues from gas stations. Sometimes I think they take product ideas from gas stations, too, though Starbucks then jacks the price way up. I’ve never quite understood why someone will complain about the price of gas to drive to work, then on the way stop off at a Starbucks and pay four or five times more per unit for a cup of coffee that they could have brought from home for a few pennies. They could even put it in a Starbucks cup from KMart if it makes them feel better.
The small shrub was fothergilla, and I applaud Starbucks for using something other than yews or forsythia. Don’t get me started on forsythia. In April my entire town turns bright yellow. Fothergilla is more dignified, a small native with thumbnail sized white puff flowers with the unmistakable scent of honey. It is about as interesting as forsythia during the summer, which means not at all, but the big show comes in fall. Fothergilla has the brightest colors October has to offer, with leaves flaming in red and orange and yellow.
A few years go all the magazines were agog over a new cultivar, quoting the press releases about its blue summer leaves. I don’t write from press releases. I went out and bought one. It was a big disappointment. It was “blue” only if you had been smoking something (I assume), and the fall color, the reason you plant fothergilla, was unimpressive.
Another disappointment about the same time was the hardy hibiscus Kopper King. Tell me a plant has giant pink flowers against wine red leaves and I grab for my wallet. I do that even knowing that “red” is the second most misused word in horticulture outside of “easy.” The plant’s leaves were neither red nor kopper. They were a smudged green.
When they came up with an “improved” red leaf, pink flowered variety, whose name lies buried outside under the mulch, I was like Charlie Brown and the football. Bought it, grew it, was disappointed again, though admittedly the leaves were a tad more smudged.
Last year Proven Winners came out with yet another red leafed, pink flowered hibiscus, and I took another swipe at the football. Called Summer Storm, this one shows promise. The leaves are maple-like and deep ... maybe a bit more purple than red, but that’s fine. Maybe my quest is over.
There are two kinds of hardy hibiscus, and both flower in late summer, long after we have forgotten the flowering shrubs of spring.. Those with the huge flowers, sometimes a foot across, are in the Hibiscus moscheutos family, though some of the hybrids have been dallying with cousins. The other is the smaller flowered Rose of Sharon, which you remember from Grandma’s side yard. But they’ve had some work done since Grandma’s day. (So has Grandma.)
A couple of my favorites are again from the Proven Winner line. Sugar Tip is just sensational, all summer long. The foliage is variegated light green and cream, and in August it explodes with small pink flowers that look like the tissue flowers we made for prom decorations. And there is even one for people who have patios and decks instead of side yards. Lil’ Kim is perfectly happy in containers.
If any of these make your mouth water, Proven Winners has a handy feature on its web site. You can punch in your zip code and get a list of nurseries in your area that carry their products. Or you can just go out in May, make the nursery tour, and impulse buy whatever strikes your eye. Or you can plant some yews and forsythia like every one else in your neighborhood.
Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reached at 12 Burgess Drive, Towanda, PA 18848 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.