Some varieties of this South American plant can thrive in the UK, says Miranda Kimberley.

A. microphylla AGM - image: Floramedia
A. microphylla AGM - image: Floramedia

Many evergreen shrubs are such amenity staples that we have become bored of using their names - Aucuba, Cotoneaster and Choisya, to name a few ubiquitous and therefore unfortunately undesirable genera. But Azara is not a name heard often, maybe because there are few hardy species. Yet there are some varieties featuring fragrant yellow flowers with prominent stamens and attractive dark-green leaves.

The genus is named after a Spanish patron of botany and its exotic sound conjures up its South American origin. They are shrubs and small trees up to 8m tall, found in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay. Their main identifying features are the small yellow flowers with conspicuous stamens that are borne in clusters in the leaf axils and their paired leaves of unequal sizes arranged alternately down the branches. After a warm summer, plants may also bear berries.

There are 10 species but only around four are easily grown outside in the UK. A. microphylla and A. petiolaris are the hardiest, down to -15 degsC. The first is the most commonly found in UK gardens. It has vanillaor chocolate-scented flowers borne in the spring. It is said to grow best in the moist South West, but is also known to grow well in the Midlands and East Anglia. It also has a variegated form that is smaller and a little less hardy.

The lovely A. serrata, with its showy deep-yellow flowers borne in early summer, is hardy down to -10 degsC. A. lanceolata, with its narrow, lance-shaped leaves, can tolerate -5 degsC. Often plants are grown against a wall to promote a better flowering display,and for really cold climates are best grown in a cool glasshouse.

Azara can be planted in most soils but a fertile, well-drained, loamy soil is best and A. lanceolata prefers a moist, acidic soil. Younger plants may need some protection in winter but once established are better able to deal with extreme temperatures.

They usually require little pruning, other than removal of any winter damage in spring and reshaping. If grown fan-trained against a wall, remove shoots growing in the wrong place and cut back those that have flowered to two-to-four buds.

Hedges should be given an annual light trim in autumn or spring. They are generally pestand disease-free, though sometimes affected by excessive fungal leaf spots on older leaves before they make way for the new season's flush.

What the specialists say

- Peter Chapman, owner, Perryhill Nurseries, East Sussex

"Azara are Chilean shrubs to small trees, though A. integrifolia is supposed to reach 10m-plus. In general, they are evergreen with glossy, bright-green leaves. A. microphylla is the smallest-leaved variety we stock. There is a variegated form that we have found to be even less hardy, so we no longer stock it, though it was an interesting, pretty variegation if a bit slow-growing.

"A. lanceolata has longer leaves of a similar size, though elongated to be, as the name suggests, lanceolate. A. serrata has rounded leaves larger than those of A. microphylla. They generally flower in early spring, although A. serrata does so in July. They suffer in containers when temperatures are very low and defoliate if not protected. They are ideal for sheltered sites and benefit from being against a south- or west-facing wall. When in full flower, they do look great and have a scent said to resemble vanilla, though I cannot say I have ever really noticed it. A. serrata seems to have no perfume."

- Danny Everett, sales manager, Botanica, Suffolk

"Azara make splendid evergreens, with foliage varying from the tiered sprays of the dainty variegated forms to the mid-green larger-leaved foliage of A. serrata and A. petiolaris. The larger forms are ideally suited as interesting specimens or small trees in a variety of planting schemes.

A. serrata would also make an attractive and unusual evergreen hedge. All Azara make spectacular and very choice plants and should appear more widely than they do.

"Their origin might suggest they are tender. This is sometimes the case, but as parts of South America have a cool climate, there are plenty of types that are more than happy in parts of the UK. Others, such as A. uruguayensis, are for the enthusiast because they are not reliably hardy.

"One of my favourites is A. serrata. Planted some 20 or more years ago at Botanica, it has flourished in a shady easterly aspect, contrary to textbook recommendations. This is how accommodating Azara can be. I have often seen visitors mesmerised by the fluffy, intense-yellow flower balls, which appear towards the end of April. A few, rather disparagingly, call the flower colour an acidic yellow, but the majority enthuse over the stunning effect.

"Although this particular plant has been kind to us, most do require to be situated carefully in a warm, sheltered spot. Azara are not overly fussy about soil, but a rich, free-draining, loamy soil suits them.

"Younger plants benefit from protection in winter, but once established many will successfully acclimatise. A. microphylla is quite a coldand frost-tolerant species with its vanilla-scented bright-yellow flowers appearing in early spring on the underside of the branches. Other varieties deserve more care in choice of site, such as A. integrifolia, which is best with a warm wall to flourish."

In practice

- Robert Player, proprietor, Garden Associates, London/Hertfordshire

"Azara is an amazing genera and much hardier than they are given credit for. I grow A. microphylla and A. serrata as large shrubs and freestanding trees in London, but in colder areas the support of a warm wall may be necessary and increases the number of flowers.

"As it is unusual to purchase specimens of any size - three litres is as big as you normally get - I take semi-ripe cuttings in summer and they soon catch up.

"I plant A. microphylla by entrance gates or paths as the chocolate-vanilla scent in the spring just carries you to another place, like Willy Wonka's factory. I grow it in free-draining, gravelly soil as well as on heavy clay, so it seems to grow anywhere and has never shown any sign of pest or disease. As a gardener, the only thing you have to watch out for in the early days is too much extension growth, making them a bit leggy, so a reduction with secateurs is required.

"A. serrata is similar to A. dentata but has bigger, glossy leaves. Again, it is trouble-free in any soil and should be more widely used. Its flowers are bigger and more mustard-yellow than those of A. microphylla. They have little or no scent and, of course, flower much later in the season - often the end of July or even August."

Species and varieties

- A. dentata is an evergreen, tree-like shrub with glossy, dark-green, toothed leaves and clusters of tiny, highly fragrant yellow flowers in late spring into early summer. Hardy to -10 degsC, it likes moisture-retentive, well-drained soil and a sheltered position in sun or partial shade. Height and spread: 3m.

- A. integrifolia is an evergreen shrub from central Chile with large glossy leaves and vivid yellow flowers. It is a more tender species that needs to be planted against a warm wall to flourish. The variegated form has the additional attraction of suffused pink. Height: 4m.

- A. lanceolata is an evergreen shrub or small tree to 6m with scented flowers and narrow, lance-like leaves. Not the hardiest species, coping down to -5 degsC, it is best placed in a sheltered position against a wall. Does well in the South West but can suffer in cold, drying winds, which cause the leaves to blacken and drop.

- A. microphylla Award of Garden Merit (AGM) (H3) is a large evergreen shrub or small tree from Chile and Argentina. It is the hardiest species, coping down to -15 degsC, although young shoots can be damaged by late spring frosts. It has tiny, deep-yellow, vanilla-scented flowers in early spring and very small, glossy dark-green leaves on herringbone branches. Height: 4-8m. Spread: 2.5-4m.

- A. microphylla 'Variegata' is an elegant, slow-growing evergreen shrub or tree with small, glossy dark-green leaves with attractive cream margins and tiny vanilla-scented yellow flowers in late winter or early spring, occasionally followed by dull orange berries. It is slightly less hardy, smaller and not as free-flowering as the plain form.

- A. petiolaris is an evergreen Chilean shrub that prefers a warm, sheltered position. It produces fluffy yellow flowers in late spring. Grown in well-drained but moist soil in a sunny position. Height: 5m.

- A. serrata AGM (H3) is an attractive shrub or small tree from Chile. It has serrated, oval leaves and showy, yellow flowers in early summer. Unlike other species, it is almost scentless. Fairly hardy, to -10 degsC. Height: 5-6m.

- A. uruguayensis is a medium-sized shrub that is not reliably hardy in the British climate. It has glossy green leaves that are a matt green beneath and small acidic yellow flowers borne in the leaf axils in spring. Sometimes found available as A. serrata 'Maurice Mason'. Height: 6m.

Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library

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