Chinese Photinia: A Beautiful Flowering Specimen Plant

 Chinese Photinia

Chinese Photinia
Chinese Photinia

Among the broad-leaved evergreens which hold places of high esteem as garden subjects, several species of the Asiatic genus photinia command particular attention. Chinese photinia (P. serrulata) is the best of these generally available for areas of moderate climate. At least three others introduced by E. H. Wilson were highly regarded in their native land and it is unfortunate that after so many years they are not better known here.

Photinias are limited in their natural distribution to the Japanese islands and eastern Asia. These plants have much in common with shadbushes and chokeberries, and their brilliant fruits carried in rounded panicles show close relationship to mountain-ashes. Another close relative is the popular toyon or Christmas-berry of California. The best known deciduous species, P. villosa, has been widely planted in Europe and North America, and it is not at all uncommon to find volunteer seedlings establishing themselves in many districts. Although a vigorous and attractive subject, this shrub has no marked advantages over the deciduous cousins noted above nor over the many fine stranvaesia or ornamental crabapples.

This is far from the case with Photinia serrulata, however. When one thinks of adding lustrous evergreen leaves with rich coppery red and pink tones in spring to the well-known beauties of shadbushes and crabapples, the prospect is exciting indeed. A British East India Company captain brought the first plants of Chinese photinia back with him from Canton in 1804. Within a few years Captain Kirkpatrick’s prize had become very popular and was fairly well distributed among gardening enthusiasts.

Shoots and young leaves of this plant command immediate attention because of their striking reddish coloration: buds, petioles and midribs usually retain this effect. The leaves are more or less oblong, from 4 to 8 inches long and with finely toothed margins, as the scientific name indicates. Oddly enough, although the leaves are evergreen and usually remain on the branchlets through the winter and even for several months longer in mild areas, they often show fine autumn coloration in tones of pink, something after the fashion of Carolina rhododendrons.

In earliest spring, even in March in Florida, Texas and Georgia, terminal buds expand into graceful rounded panicles, with many branches eventually measuring up to 6 inches across. Jewel-like flower buds open to show five petals and 20 delicate stamens at the center. Though less than half an inch across individually, these delicate flowers are showy because of their numbers as well as their setting lustrous evergreen foliage.

Berry-like fruits about 1/4 inch across mature during the summer and standout with increasing effectiveness as they turn bright red in the autumn. Their beauty and excellent lasting qualities in early winter have led to the name Christmas-berry being applied occasionally to this species, although this should be reserved for the relative found in California.

Chinese photinias have the reputation of growing best near large bodies of water, and this may be one reason for their popularity along the Pacific Coast. In the eastern states, it is doubtful they can be depended on farther north than Cape Cod, even near the coast, and plantings north of Maryland should be made with special care. It is interesting to note that a fine 8- to 10- foot specimen has been famous on Long Island, and several of about half this stature can be found in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

After you buy, a warm loamy soil and a situation offering protection from winds are the first things to look for in selecting a location for these photinias. Temperatures much below 5 degrees Fahrenheit for any length of time will cause damage unless the setting has been selected to bring about thorough ripening of growth towards middle or late summer. Dryness of the soil will accomplish this effectively, and yet, if foliage is to remain rich and lustrous, moisture must be fairly constant through autumn and winter. Plants should be set out only in early spring, with every encouragement to promote extensive root and shoot growth in May and June but a gradual tapering off by midsummer.

In most situations these shrubs are best grown as rounded specimens with many stems from the ground. In mild sections where winter injury is rarely a factor they can be developed as small trees with a single trunk. Striking foliage effects, in addition to attractive flowers and fruits, make these photinias feature subjects. Specimens can be used for accent and variety in border plantings framing a lawn or formal garden picture. They are also appropriate near large buildings where the transitions from one stage to another can be watched from windows and porches throughout the year.

Appropriate companion subjects include flowering cherries, camellias, magnolias and other first-rank garden favorites. It is also difficult to surpass the effect of a photinia or two in a grouping with fine specimens of pines and other tree conifers.

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