Colourful flowers and stunning foliage are great rewards for growing this often unfamiliar plant, says Miranda Kimberley.

L. chinense var. rubrum	‘Fire Dance’ - image: Floramedia
L. chinense var. rubrum ‘Fire Dance’ - image: Floramedia

Everyone knows the witch hazel, Hamamelis, but Loropetalum is the seldom mentioned black sheep of the family. This is probably because it is on the tender side and can only be grown outside in the south and west of the UK. However, it can be a good conservatory plant.

There is only one in Loropetalum in cultivation, L. chinense, an evergreen shrub with small mid- to dark-green overlapping heart-shaped leaves. The species has white-green flowers with a spidery appearance like those of witch hazel, but the petals are a little longer and wider than those of Hamamelis. They are produced freely during February and March.

There are some cultivars with strong pink or red flowers, such as ‘Ming Dynasty’, and the highly popular L. chinense var. rubrum has reddish-purple foliage. Several excellent cultivars have been bred from this with pink flowers that stand out beautifully against the leaves. New foliage growth is often a stronger purple than later in the season, when it may mature to green. This is certainly true of the varieties ‘Fire Dance’ and ‘Blush’. The flowers appear from late winter into early spring and can be fragrant.

It is not a plant for the cold regions. Loropetalum will cope down to -5°C but will not flower well where temperatures regularly drop below 5°C. In these areas it is best to grow them in pots and keep them in a conservatory or greenhouse. But it is becoming increasingly possible to successfully grow it outside in the south and west of England in a warm, sheltered location. Even if they are hit by a frost it will damage the top growth but the body of the shrub will survive.

Plant Loropetalum in slightly acidic, humus-rich soil that holds moisture well. Given the right conditions they can be used in several different ways, making them a versatile shrub.

Firstly, they are a perfect addition to a winter garden alongside other fragrant shrubs such as Mahonia, Daphne, and Chimonanthus, flowering before spring properly bursts forth. They can be used in mixed borders, planted up against the foil of larger shrubs such as camellias, which also provide them with shelter. They can also be trained against a wall and can be a lovely feature shrub in a rock garden, positioned so that the branches cascade down over the stone.

What the specialists say

Martin Batchelor, owner, Eleplants Nursery, Sussex

"Loropetalum are not the easiest of plants to grow but the rewards make it worthwhile due to the fairly free-flowering nature of the plant and, in the case of the rubrum varieties, the stunning foliage.

"In terms of hardiness, L. chinense is more hardy than the rubrum forms. They are best pot-grown unless they have an ideal location, climate and soil. Their preferred situation is a warm, sheltered position in acid soil or compost. Unfortunately though, they are susceptible to vine weevil.

"The straight species L. chinense is nice, with limey coloured leaves and white flowers — especially when grown against a backdrop of darker foliage. Other good varieties include L. chinense var. rubrum ‘Fire Dance’ for its pink flowers and L. chinense var. rubrum ‘Blush’, also bearing pink flowers but with leaves that start purple and mature to green. My favourite though is L. chinense var. rubrum ‘Hot Spice’ due to its stunning red flower and a darker redness to the leaves."

In practice

Robin Maynard-Seaver, head gardener, Jacob’s Island, London

"I first encountered Loropetalum when I took over as head gardener, for Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey, three years ago. We have three plantings of Loropetalum and they all thrive in spite of being in diverse conditions in regards to light and aspect. It is remarkable to come across a shrub that is unfamiliar and yet has such appeal after some 30 years of gardening.

"I think the variety we have is ‘Black Pearl’. It has dark reddish-purple foliage when in full sun and in drought conditions. If this shrub is grown in shade and/or has plenty of water, the foliage will be green or green with some newer leaves showing the reddish purple colour. Many would consider the green foliage inferior to the reddish purple, but I like it all and I like the way the plant goes back and forth along this continuum of foliage shades.

"It is a medium to large shrub that is a bit unkempt and shaggy looking. It has a lovely pink, fragrant flower in late winter and early spring. The flower resembles the witch hazel blossom but it is not actually very obvious — you need to be looking carefully at the plant to notice and admire it.

"It is not one for being shaped. Prune it sensitively with the pattern of branching and it will be OK but it is better left in a large border to do its own thing. I like to combine it with Carex ‘Red Rooster’ and variegated Phormium. I saw it in St James’s Park the other day planted en masse under some plane trees and it was interesting to see how the dark red of the Loropetalum affected the colour of the plane tree bark."

Species and varieties

L. chinense is a bushy, twiggy shrub that produces mid- to dark-green leaves fringed with bristly hairs and white-to-green flowers that are spidery in appearance, like Hamamelis. Height: 1-3m.

L. chinense var. rubrum ‘Fire Dance’ is a fantastic selection of this rounded, evergreen shrub, with deep reddish-purple leaves that may mature to green and - bright-pink slightly fragrant flowers from early spring. Usually smaller-growing than the species. Height and width: 1m.
L. chinense var. rubrum ‘Daybreak’s Flame’ is a bushy, evergreen shrub with purple and red foliage along with dark-pink witch hazel-like flowers. Height and spread: 2m.
L. chinense var. rubrum ‘Blush’ produces reddish-purple foliage and bears sweetly scented, pink, spider-like flowers in winter. Height and spread: 1m.

L. chinense ‘Tang Dynasty’ is an evergreen shrub with wonderful bronze-red coloured new foliage that matures to green. Bright-pink flowers are produced in early spring.
L. chinense ‘Ming Dynasty’ is a rounded, bushy evergreen shrub with rough textured mid-green leaves that are flushed attractively reddish-bronze when young. Small, spidery, sweet scented, pinkish-red flowers in late winter to early spring. Height and spread: 2m.
L. chinense ‘Chang Nian Hong’, also referred to as "ever red", is an evergreen shrub with striking burgundy coloured foliage, against which the lipstick-red spidery flowers stand out beautifully, from late winter into early spring. Height and spread: 1.5m.
L. chinense ‘Carolina Moonlight’ has possibly the darkest foliage of all Loropetalum — a lovely dark-purple. The dark fuchsia flowers stand out beautifully well in contrast. Height: 3-5m. Spread: 2-3m.
L. chinense ‘Black Pearl’ is a compact evergreen shrub with rich dark-green foliage, tinted purple all year round. Deep-rose, fringed, spider-like flowers are produced in abundance in early spring. Ultimate height: 1-1.4m.

Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library www.floramedia-picture-library.com

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