Leucothoe shrubs (pronounced “Lew-kohth-oh-wey”) are wonderful plants that offer evergreen structure and pretty color to a garden all year. They have a mounding form with branches that shoot from the base before drooping for a lovely shaggy structure. With insignificant flowers, these blueberry relatives instead feature easy-care maintenance and stunning foliage. All cultivars like part or dappled shade. They do have weird common names like “dog hobble” and “black laurel” and “fetterbush,” so I prefer their botanical name “Leucothoe.” Here are several cultivars I recommend that most gardeners in the U.S. can grow.
Leucothoe axillaris ‘Rejoyce’
This new cultivar has hot-red emerging foliage and then deep maroon older foliage with a lovely satiny surface that absorbs light and creates a dreamy haunting mood. It likes part or dappled shade and grows in a mound shape, topping off at three feet wide by three feet tall. Hardy down to zone 6.
Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’
This leucothoe is an oldie but a goodie, sporting red stems and buds, green-yellow marbled leaves, and deep maroon edging. It grows densely in a tall drooping mound. It likes to flourish under trees in dappled light. ‘Rainbow’ can grow to an immense size at five feet wide and tall, but it’s worth it. Hardy to zone 5. Incredibly striking.
Leucothoe axillaris ‘Coast’
I’ve noticed Coast Leucothoes have a darker green tone than their counterparts. Reddish color spreads through leaves in winter. What’s unusual about the Coast Leucothoe is the teeny bell-like flowers grow in clumps instead in a pattern along the stems, almost like a pieris. It tops out at five feet and is hardy to zone 5. If you want a deep-green curtain of foliage, this is the choice.
Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Zeblid’
This leucothoe’s common name is Scarletta Fetterbush so you may see it labeled as such. It’s an alluring introduction with a scattering of deep red leaves that all mostly turn purple in autumn. Scarletta is also a lower growing shrub, topping out at two by two feet wide and tall. It’s also hardy down to Zone 5 but if I were growing it in the upper midwest, I’d plant it in dappled shade under a tree just to ensure extra frost protection. Very pretty in winter.
Skimmia japonica is a lovely broadleaf evergreen shrub — except when your dog goes the bathroom on it. Then it turns into this, a yellowed sad skeleton. It used to be stately and lush, a perfect plant for deep shade, but that all changed.
A Pretty Green Scheme
I planted this skimmia in an effort to contrast with the variegated dogwood growing behind it. For years it worked perfectly. The deep green leaves of the broadleaf evergreen mounded horizontally against the upward vase shape of the light-colored dogwood. But then last winter, my dog made it his pee post and by this spring, it had perished.
Gardening with dogs can be frustrating. I’ve had to protect my beds with ticky tack fencing. But when I want to weed or even step into the garden, I have to wrestle with the lightweight fencing, which often flops over and is hard for one person to set upright in the ground. And so I left the skimmia unprotected. He didn’t bother with it for years and I had assumed he never would. But I was wrong.
This isn’t the first plant I’ve lost to dog urine. I’ve lost a beautiful purple-leafed loropetalum, an expensive and unique kalmia, a huge-leafed rhododendron (sinogrande). And those are only the highlights. There’s also arbutus, magnolia, lavender. Even my young loquat suffered. It can be depressing.
Anyway, the above picture, courtesy of the Oregon State University Plant Database, shows what a healthy skimmia looks like. They grow from about four feet wide to four feet tall and are hardy to zone 6. They keep their dark leaves all year round and the flowers are fragrant. The berries are poisonous but carmine red and lovely. This is a great choice if you have deep shade and don’t know what to plant. Just don’t let the dogs near it!
I have this tricky garden area on the eastern boundary of my yard. It has a huge oak tree. It has a lawson cypress. The trees shade out an eastern and southern exposure until about two o’clock when the hot afternoon sun blasts through. Then all hell breaks loose. It’s the most difficult area of my yard in which to garden. A shaded sunny border.
A Heavy Wet Soil Baked in the Sun
Part of the problem is a massively tall oak tree grows along the fence in this part of the garden. The tree isn’t all that healthy. It’s old, it has dead branches, broken limbs, but the squirrels and birds make their nests in it. Plus, it gives us a pleasant screen of privacy. I don’t have good reason to remove it.
The problem is because the tree’s old and established, its roots have sucked much of the nutrients from the soil. There’s a vast network in its dripline below. Also, the soil there is very heavy, clay-like and clumpy. Buttercups often grow like wildfire. Most of my yard has sandy soil but not here along the fence. It’s all silty clay.
A Shaded Yet Sunny Border Situation
Also, because of its dense canopy, most of the plants sit in heavy dappled shade before receiving a heat scourge for about four-six hours until the sun fades.
This has created a dilemma. I have dappled shade in the morning and full hot sun in the afternoon. What grows well in half-day sun? Some plants do and I’ve had success with some, but others not so much. At the very back, I’ve planted hydrangeas and rhododendrons, shade plants that are happy and healthy. But sunny perennials toward the middle have struggled. I thought they would receive enough sun but they didn’t. Part-shade plants in the middle struggled as well. I thought they’d receive enough shade but they didn’t. And so the border is a constant work-in-progress.
I’ve had success with the ‘Halcyon’ hostas and Japanese forest grass and fuchsia magellanica near the front edge. But the acanthus struggle in the August sun, as do the astilbes. My bugbane does well for awhile and then declines. My heuchera ‘Plum Pudding’ and ‘Forever Purple’ are pretty much success stories but they’re out of scale with what I already have planted.
Ideas for the Future
So this is what I’m thinking. Move the hostas and acanthus back, a few feet deeper where the shade lasts about an hour longer than the rest of the border. Moving the acanthus will be tricky as its tubular roots like to break off and regrow big new leaves. But if I can relocate those workhouses, I may be able to arrange the heucheras and forest grass into a scheme of half-day sun perennials. I’m also considering tiarellas and daylilies and lady’s mantle for the front edge.
Lastly, I know I’ll have to fluff up the soil with some compost. And to get the best results, I’ll need to mix it into the clay soil. By the way, a lot of newbie gardeners think that mixing in sand, the most porous kind of soil, would be the way to lighten up the clay. But the opposite is true. If you mix sand with clay, you will get cement. The particles are all small and of similar size, locking them tightly together. It makes the soil extra heavy and non-porous. To lighten clay soil, you have to add particles of varying sizes with organic matter. That mix will attract insects and worms and keep the soil aerated and healthy.
I’ve been putting off this project because there’s an overwhelming amount of work to do. But’s time. I’m ready for a renovation. So my question to readers is what other plants should I use? What ideas do you have? Let me know by sending me a tweet on Twitter!