Escallonia

This versatile genus is a great alternative to plain hedging and also works well mixed with other shrubs or as a specimen plant.

Escallonia 'Apple Blossom' AGM - photo: Adrian Thomas
Escallonia 'Apple Blossom' AGM - photo: Adrian Thomas

There are many plain evergreen hedges to choose from, but Escallonia is not one of them. This informal hedging and specimen plant has many attributes, not least its scent and vividly coloured blooms, which have made it a favourite for years.

Traditionally, it was used as a hedge in southern England and Ireland, where its tolerance to the wet, salty air allowed it to become a commonly used coastal windbreak.

These days it is sold as a specimen plant, but its main market is still for use as hedging. Although slow to take off as an instant hedge, its trade price of £2-3 for a two-litre pot means an affordable healthy hedge can be established after a few years’ growth.

The spicy smell of glossy leaves gives way to a profusion of lightly but sweet-scented tubular flowers throughout late spring and well into early autumn. The variety of flower colours from pure white to crimson-red delights many who are looking for a change from privet and box.

The scented E. ‘Apple Blossom’ Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is compact and bushy, yet its pink-tinted white flowers are among the largest the genus has to offer. This specimen plant has traditionally been half-hardy, but with the recent warm winters it may join other escallonias in being grown across the UK.

Generally, escallonias are considered hardy. Nevertheless, this 39-strong South-American genus should be grown in a sunny spot with shelter from cold, drying winds. And while it is tolerant of both drought and lime, the best site for this plant is a well-draining fertile soil.

On larger sites, Escallonia can be combined with other shrubs in mixed mass plantings — its dark green foliage makes an excellent backdrop for flowerbeds. The plant merges beautifully with tall and brightly coloured perennials such as Verbena bonariensis AGM or Delphinium ‘Loch Leven’ AGM.

In some cultivars the foliage is more striking than the plants they are supposed to contrast. The alluring golden and green variegation of E. laevis ‘Gold Ellen’, for example, would complement any landscape design.

Growing on average to 2.5m high with a spread of 2.5m, Escallonia should be planted at least 45cm apart. If given adequate space, cutting back can be limited to the removal of old flower buds, although they respond very well to a hard pruning. It is important to note that such “renovation” trimming should really be done in the spring so that new growths are given optimum time to grow back prior to winter.

When grown as a shrub, the more vigorous cultivars may even need two trimmings a year. However, to avoid having to prune regularly, a good option to choose is E. rubra ‘Pygmaea’ syn. ‘Woodside’, a dwarf variety that reaches 75cm high and 2.5m wide, and shows wonderful crimson flowers. This variety is known to revert back to E. rubra, however.

Relatively disease-free, Escallonia is propagated easily in the spring by softwood cuttings that take in four to eight weeks. Hardwood cuttings can be taken in late autumn and overwintered in cold frames — the young plants should be mature enough to cope with being planted out after a year’s growth. This can be done at any time of the year, but the best time to plant them outdoors is in spring, when they should be well watered until they establish.

What the specialists say

Andrew Forsyth, partner, Weasdale Nurseries, Cumbria

“We are a field nursery and grow all our plants on from plugs. When selling them, we offer bare-root plants through mail order.  We mainly have private customers but also get orders from the National Trust, country estates and farmers.  Although we do not sell a huge number of Escallonia, we have delivered more in the past few years because we now market it as hedging.

“It is popular in seaside locations and on golf courses, and makes a nice change from the usual evergreen hedge. I find it aromatic when grown in large numbers, especially as a hedge — when in flower the sweetness of the blossoms overlays the leaves.”

Pauline Brown, proprietor, Buckingham Nurseries, Buckinghamshire

“Our sale of Escallonia has not changed over many years, but now we see more of it being sold as hedging.  We do not sell large numbers of this plant — about 2,000 a year. This is  mainly split between E. ‘CF Ball’ and E. ‘Donard Seedling’.

“Our customers are generally choosing their plants on flower colour, not on species. I prefer the pink-tinged E. ‘Donard Seedling’ to ‘CF Ball’as I find the red colour of E. ‘CF Ball’ too bright.

“We used to propagate on site but now buy in from Holland as they have the technology to produce the cuttings cheaply. We sell some of our plants as instant hedges but not Escallonia. This is  because instant hedging is a high-cost product and Escallonia is a more affordable product. It is better to start them off as small plants, grow them on in situ and then prune them into that shape.”

In practice

Tom La Dell, Tom La Dell Landscape Architects, Kent

“I don’t use Escallonia for any particular purpose but take the rational approach and use plants that fulfil a role. I find that most designers select a plant that has the desired look but don’t think about how large it could grow.

“Because it is quite a small shrub, I believe that Escallonia fills a gap in the market. If the correct variety is carefully chosen, this plant will not grow too large for its position. For my purposes, this makes it a useful plant in the long-term management of large-scale designs.”

Species and cultivars

•    E. ‘Apple Blossom’ AGM has a sweet fragrance with apple-blossom-like flowers.
•    E. ‘CF Ball’ is a vigorous and erect open-growing variety with bright red flowers. It is commonly grown as a hedge.
•    E. ‘Donard Radiance’ AGM is a vigorous variety with an erect growth form and displays pink blossoms.
•    E. ‘Donard Seedling’ is commonly used as a hedge. It has small pink buds that open into pink-tinted white flowers.
•    E. ‘Gwendolyn Anley’ is a small, very hardy variety with flesh-pink flowers.
•    E. ‘Iveyi’ AGM features white flowers and is half-hardy. This fragrant variety bears leaves that tend to go bronze in winter.
•    E. laevis ‘Gold Brian’ is a small compact shrub with golden foliage and red blossoms.
•    E. laevis ‘Gold Ellen’ bears variegated gold and green foliage with red blossoms.
•    E. laevis ‘Langleyensis’ AGM has arching stems with masses of rose-pink flowers in early and mid-summer.
•    E. ‘Peach Blossom’ AGM shows its peach-tinted white blossoms early in the spring.
•    E. ‘Pride of Donard’ AGM is erect and compact, with large, bright red flowers throughout early and mid-summer.
•    E. rubra ‘Crimson Spire’ is a large, erect shrub with brown, peeling bark and loose groups of dark red flowers.
•    E. rubra var. macrantha is a tall shrub with small, bright, rose-red flowers.
•    E. rubra ‘Pygmaea’ syn. ‘Woodside’ displays crimson-red flowers and is perfect for smaller sites. Its compact rounded habit makes it useful for specimen planting.
•    E. ‘Silver Anniversary’ is a vigorous variety. Its leaves have pale silvery margins, contrasting with its rose-pink flowers.


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