Fragrant flowers and lustrous leaves help these often overlooked shrubs and small trees to stand out, says Miranda Kimberley.

E. × ebbingei ‘Limelight’ - image: Floramedia
E. × ebbingei ‘Limelight’ - image: Floramedia

There are mainstays of amenity horticulture that are not necessarily the most glamorous of plants but are incredibly useful and come into their own in certain seasons when suddenly they are noticed. In the case of Elaeagnus it is their scent, which in autumn comes wafting through the park fence or across the supermarket car park, making you look and take note of that until now passed-by plant.

Elaeagnus also have gorgeous leaves on closer examination. The garden hybrid E. × ebbingei Award of Garden Merit (AGM) in particular has lovely large, leathery leaves with a silvery sheen, particularly on the underside. It is a tough bird too, coping with sea air, which makes it invaluable in maritime areas for creating hedges and shelter belts.

There are said to be 40-45 species of Elaeagnus, found in Southern Europe and Asia, with one species in North America. They are generally fast-growing shrubs or small trees, and can be deciduous or evergreen. Their stems are often spiny.

One of their best features is their lustrous leaves, made so because they are covered in minute silvery or brown scales, particularly densely on the undersides. Another is their beautifully scented flowers. The fruits are edible olive-like drupes, not said to be particularly tasty, but they produce an attractive display on the species E. umbellata and E. multiflora.

There are many good variegated forms that have either central leaf variegation or outer leaf margin variegation. All suffer to some extent from reversion — in particular the central leaf types — so maintenance needs to keep on top of this. Palmstead marketing manager Nick Coslett states that E. × ebbingei ‘Coastal Gold’ is one of the most stable variegations. He also recommends E. × ebbingei ‘Gilt Edge’ AGM and E. pungens ‘Goldrim’.

The reason why Elaeagnus make such great amenity plants is that they can do well in nearly any type of soil, as long as it is well-drained. The deciduous types in particular can tolerate poor soils.

They can withstand wind and salt as well, making them the ideal choice for creating wind breaks or hedges in coastal areas. They form nice informal hedges or can even be used as backdrop shrubs in borders — the variegated varieties really pop out of a dark corner. If necessary, the plants can be hard pruned because they will reshoot from old wood.

What the specialists say

Nick Coslett, marketing manager, Palmstead Nurseries, Kent

"Overall, Elaeagnus is a popular shrub — the evergreen varieties being the most popular, specifically E. × ebbingei and E. pungens ‘Maculata’. Both appear on the HTA’s list of top 100 landscape shrubs for amenity planting. All have some thorns but generally they are not big in the anti-personnel department.

"Elaeagnus are big shrubs, attaining 3m plus, and I’ve seen some very mature shrubs at 6m. Therefore their large size often renders them to large screening use or subject to regular trimming. Most respond well to pruning and trimming, and even heavy pruning.

"They are very tough plants and hardy as well as being good in coastal conditions. They also meet the current trend for evergreen all-year-round colour. Their flowers can be very fragrant. Although not significant visually, their scent gets the nose’s attention.

"At Palmstead we currently grow six evergreen varieties as well as one deciduous form. The most popular evergreens are E. × ebbingei, E. × ebbingei ‘Coastal Gold’ and E. pungens ‘Maculata’.

"There are a few deciduous types of Elaeagnus but the one that we grow and which is in demand from designers is E. ‘Quicksilver’, a vigorous shrub that has narrow silvery green leaves going yellow in autumn. It can and does sucker too, which needs supervision. I have seen it trained into a small tree form as well as bold shrubs, bringing light into plantings.

"Elaeagnus don’t want to be planted in waterlogged ground but they are generally are tolerant of a broad range of different soil types. There are no major problems when grown in the landscape, apart from managing the reversion growths, which occur commonly on the variegated forms.

"On the nursery, when they are grown en masse they can get a sucker insect, especially when grown in protected areas, although this is readily controllable."

In practice

Matthew Pottage, garden manager for hardy ornamentals, RHS Wisley, Surrey

"Elaeagnus are versatile, reliable and beautiful shrubs that need to be matched suitably to their location. They undoubtedly get a reputation for being ‘car park plants’ due to their robust nature. However, this can be a useful quality at times.

"At Wisley, we have an old plant of E. × ebbingei ‘The Hague’, which screens a view by a courtyard where the visitor toilets are located. The courtyard is filled with perfume from the small white flowers, which are hidden under the leaves. The plant is also livened up by a neighbouring Clematis armandii that scrambles through the lower branches.

"Perhaps one of our best variegated examples is E. × ebbingei ‘Gilt Edge’, which grows near the garden entrance and is a fine example of the large proportions they can grow to. We’ve crown lifted the lower branches to make it look like a small tree and its bold, yellow variegated leaves really lighten up the corner where it is planted.

"Our new rose garden has a good specimen of the deciduous E. ‘Quicksilver’, which has wispy arching stems. Its glorious silver leaves break up the surrounding colours, not to mention the powerful perfume of the flowers in early summer that wafts down the central path, sending all the visitors to look for an early flowered scented rose.

"Finally, something a little more small-scale is the tasteful E. pungens ‘Hosoba-fukurin’, which has a slender leaf, carefully margined with gold, which somehow looks oriental, as its name suggests."

Species and varieties

E. angustifolia is also referred to as oleaster or the "Russian olive". It is a large, deciduous, spiny shrub or small tree that produces fragrant flowers in June. It has attractive silvery grey willow-like leaves, meaning it is often confused with the willow-leaved pear, Pyrus salicifolia. Bears small silvery orange oval fruits. Height and spread: 4m.

E. ‘Quicksilver’ was formerly grown as E. angustifolia var. caspica. Its name refers to its attractive leaves, which are narrow and silvery, especially when young. Spreads by suckers. Height and spread: 6m.

E. commutata or "silver berry" is a deciduous thicket-forming shrub that spreads by stolons. It has long elliptic silver leaves, borne on upright red-brown shoots. Fragrant pendent flowers are produced in May, followed by silvery fruit. Height: 4m. Spread: 2m.

E. pungens is a vigorous, spreading, rarely spiny evergreen shrub that has green shiny leaves with dull white undersides, speckled with brown scales. Fragrant flowers in autumn. Height: up to 5m.

E. pungens ‘Frederici’ is a medium-sized slow-growing form with narrow leaves that are mainly pale creamy yellow with a narrow bright-green border. Produces flowers in autumn and brown berries that ripen to red in spring. Height and spread: 2m.

E. pungens ‘Goldrim’ is a bushy evergreen shrub, often spiny, with elliptic, dark glossy green leaves narrowly edged with golden yellow, and small fragrant white flowers in autumn. Height and spread: 4m.

E. pungens ‘Hosoba-fukurin’ is a vigorous but compact form with spiny shoots. It has rich green leaves with a narrow, wavy yellow margin and white undersides.

E. pungens ‘Maculata’ is a form that has green leaves with a central splash of bright yellow. Arched and somewhat spiny branches. Prone to reversion. Height and spread: 4m.

E. umbellata is a wide-spreading shrub with yellowish/brown shoots and soft green leaves that are silvery beneath. Its flowers, produced in May and June, have a heady scent. It looks striking in autumn covered in masses of small, rounded, pale-red fruits speckled with white. Height and spread: 5m.

E. × ebbingei AGM (H5), or "Ebbinge’s silverberry", is a large, hardy, fast-growing evergreen shrub. It can be used to create attractive hedges and is especially useful to provide shelter by the sea because it copes with salt-laden air. The result of a cross between E. macrophylla and E. pungens (or perhaps E. × reflexa). Its large leaves are initially spotted, maturing to a lustrous green, but always have a silvery underside. Tiny creamy white flowers borne in October/November, with a heady fragrance. Height and spread: 4m.

E. × ebbingei ‘Limelight’ is a tough variety that copes well with dry soil and salt-laden air. Its leaves are green when young, becoming lime-green with yellow-splashed centres. Produces fragrant, creamy white flowers in autumn. Use to illuminate dark areas of the shrub border, as an informal hedge and for flower arranging. Height and spread: 3m.

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

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