Skimmia

This fragrant, winter-flowering evergreen offers a compact habit, dark foliage and attractive berries, says Kris Collins.

Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' - photo: Istockphoto
Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' - photo: Istockphoto

At this time of year there is little else that attracts the eye to a shrub planting scheme like the various forms of Skimmia.

The genus, found naturally occurring in the Himalayas and across Asia to Japan, offers a host of cultivars across four species - the most prolific being S. japonica. The various growth habits across the range make Skimmia good plants for borders, foundation plantings, spot colour and containers.

Some find their heavy use in planting displays uninspiring, but many view the genus as one of the finest winter-flowering evergreens and a staple option for plant specifiers.

Most forms of Skimmia offer a compact, bushy growth habit with dark leathery foliage providing a great background for the showy berries and flowers. All winter the plants sit covered in large clusters of red or white buds that open in spring to provide a strong scent before developing into bright red berries.

All parts of the plant have a pungent aroma when crushed. If appearance is not the main factor of a planting scheme, Skimmia can be planted to overhang pathways - as people brush against the plant, any damage will throw up an attractive scent.

Most skimmias are dioecious, in that male and female flowers appear on different plants. Individual cultivars are either male or female. If the female S. japonica 'Nymans' Award of Garden Merit (AGM) was to be planted with berries in mind, a male form such as S. japonica 'Rubella' would need to be planted close by to ensure pollination. S. japonica subsp. reevsiana is a popular monoecious choice.

Skimmia plants are slow growing, so little pruning is needed. In fact, it is better not to cut them at all, if possible. Specimens at the National Trust's Bodnant Garden, in Wales, were planted as long as 50 years ago but remain at just 1.5m today and are never pruned.

If the plants do become too large for their situation, some light formative pruning should be carried out. At this time semi-ripe cuttings can be taken for propagation purposes.

Because of their compactness, Skimmia plants make great additions to container plantings. Given a large-enough pot - over 35cm - a Skimmia variety can be grown as a permanent container plant, lasting years if kept out of full sun. In the border, the genus' strong foliage contrasts well with ferns and hostas.

Skimmia plants are also recommended for the front of an ericaceous bed containing larger acid-loving plants including Pieris, Azalea and Rhododendron.

The plants are relatively disease free but pests can be a problem. Skimmia can be susceptible to horse chestnut scale, aphids and red spider mite.

WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY

Dr Chris Clennett, National Collection Holder and garden manager, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Wakehurst Place, Sussex - "Skimmia is great for a neutral to acid soil. I wouldn't try it on chalk. The perceived wisdom is that the plants like shade, but we've grown them here in various conditions from heavy shade to light shade and they all seem very happy, even taking quite a lot of sun.

"The plants tend to form domes, so they don't hedge very well, but make a good addition to a border or long-term planting scheme.

"If you want to get berries you will need some male plants as well as female. Most varieties are female. We tend to place the occasional male variety among a border of female types - male and female are not of the same cultivar.

"One of the best males is S. japonica 'Rubella' Award of Garden Merit (AGM), which is always a popular choice. Among the females, S. japonica 'Winifred Crook' is a good scarlet option and S. japonica 'Wakehurst White' is one of the best white options - though I'd have to say that."

Richard Mckenna, site director, Wyevale East Nurseries, Kent - "Skimmia is a good plant and one we tend to stock a lot of. It's a versatile evergreen option and we always try to have a good range of cultivars on offer. It is shade-loving, it flowers fantastically and berries well if it's a female variety. It also reaches a nice size in the shade and is a useful plant for plugging darker corners of a plot.

"Some are more compact and offer good ground cover, while most are dome-forming and good for borders. They look great at this time of year but we sell them all year round. We see a lot of orders for use in winter container and basket displays, particularly for pub gardens.

"S. japonica 'Nymans' AGM is a good female variety and S. japonica 'Veitchii', another female, is a large upright variety. S. x confusa 'Kew Green', a male form, is great for fragrance.

"S. japonica 'Rubella' AGM is the most common male form. Its flowers are a great colour, and though they don't berry they do last a long time. To get berries it is best to plant a male variety among several female plants.

"A new variegated form, S. japonica 'Magic Marlot', was launched in Holland this year. It is a pricy plant for its size but offers something a little different."

IN PRACTICE

Troy Smith, head gardener, National Trust Bodnant Garden, Wales - "Some of the plants we have in the gardens are fairly old now, dating back 40 to 50 years, and they have aged well. We typically have them in our shrub borders and in the dell, where it's damp and shaded. We don't use them in formal settings and they are left loose, with little or no pruning.

"Being so old, it's not easy to tell which species they are. We have some cultivars of S. japonica and S. x confusa. We also have one planted in a pot and, again, that is at least 20-years-old.

"Despite their age they are still only 1.5m high. In my own garden I've used S. japonica subsp. reevsiana, a very compact form that stays low to the ground."

SPECIES AND CULTIVARS

- S. anquetilia grows from the western Himalaya to Afghanistan. It is a larger form, reaching 2m.

- S. arborescens is an unusal, tree-forming variety, reaching up to 15m.

- S. x confusa 'Kew Green' Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is a male form with distinctive narrow foliage against creamy flower buds.

- S. japonica 'Emerald King' is a dome-forming male variety with reddish-brown flowers, growing to 1m.

- S. japonica 'Fragrans' AGM a small, bushy form with aromatic, dark green leaves that are 10cm in length. It produces dense clusters of small, fragrant white male flowers.

- S. japonica 'Kew White' is a rare white flowered form that produces unusual white berries when fruiting.

- S. japonica 'Marlot' is a male form growing to 60cm. Its green flowerheads turn red, opening to pink flowers in spring.

- S. japonica 'Nymans' AGM is a prolific fruiting variety. It has small, white flowers that produce masses of red berries in late spring. It grows to 1m in height.

- S. japonica subsp. reevesiana (syn. S. reevesiana) is known as the Reeves Skimmia. It is low growing and self-fertile, producing clusters of dull crimson fruit.

- S. japonica 'Rubella' AGM is a compact male variety with attractive red-margined, dark green leaves. It grows to 75cm.

- S. japonica 'Tansley Gem' is a small female variety growing to 60cm. It has fragrant pink-white flowers that are followed by bright red berries if pollination occurs.

- S. japonica 'Thereza' is a male variety producing large flower heads. Its green flower buds open to cream-white flowers in spring. It grows to 1m.

- S. japonica 'Veitchii' is a female form growing to 1m. It has cream-white flowers that are followed by red berries if pollination occurs.

- S. japonica 'Wakehurst White' is a low-growing female form growing to 60cm. It has cream-white flowers that are followed by white berries if pollination occurs.

- S. laureola is native to the area from Nepal to Vietnam and China. It is a shrub or small tree growing to 13m.

1. S. laureola

2. S. japonica 'Rubella' AGM

3. S. japonica subsp. reevesiana

4. S. japonica 'Wakehurst White'.


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