By my count this is my 100th article I have written for The Gardener News. Having written about so many plants and their wonderful attributes I thought, for this month, I would write about a plant that has flowers, fruit, outstanding foliage and interesting bark. A lesser-known plant, over the years, that is making headway, I believe, because compact and colorful cultivars seem to lend themselves well to the average home garden and to container gardening. A plant that has viburnum and rhododendron being replaced, at times, because many are just so enamored with the hot colors that are now available on Ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius.
Common Ninebark, also called Eastern Ninebark is native from Quebec to Virginia, Tennessee, Michigan and Minnesota. Introduced in the late 1600’s, Ninebark has not always been a plant most would remember to use. Achieving average heights of 5-10 feet tall and wide, Ninebark has been quoted, in the past, as “about anything is better than a Physocarpus” (Dr. Michael Dirr). And while that may have been true of the species and even some of the older cultivars, today there is a whole new palate available to gardeners that offer rich, vibrant colors on their leaves. Colors that are sometimes difficult to obtain in the garden like yellow, amber and red. Sure you can do it with barberry, but you know how they reseed themselves. And while Heuchera’s and Heucherella’s offer similar markings on their leaves, they wont hold up in hot afternoon sun so well. Ninebark’s hardiness is from zones 2-7. Having alternate, roundish ovate leaves that are 1-3 inches long and bark that is a shiny red brown on younger stems is attractive to me. However, the bark on older stems and plants peels in long papery sheets to reveal several layers of reddish brown inner bark, hence its common name. This alone looks outstanding in the winter months when the plant is devoid of leaves. Featuring small pink or white, five-petaled flowers, appearing in dense, flat, rounded, almost spiraea-like clusters (corymbs) in late spring only adds to its interest. Drooping clusters of reddish fruit, inflated seed capsules, are abundant in September and October. Another opinion of this plant is that it is a “tough, thicket-forming, Missouri native deciduous shrub growing 5-8 feet tall with graceful arching branches” (Missouri Botanical Gardens).
So how ‘bout those colorful cultivars? ‘Center Glow’ is a mounded, vase-shaped, Ninebark cultivar that matures to 6-8 feet tall and wide. Its maple-like leaves emerge golden and age to burgundy for a dramatic presentation. Complementing its leaves are small pinkish-white flowers. ‘Diabolo’ is a purple-leaved cultivar, brought to us from Germany and a PHS gold medal winner that grows 4-8 feet. Pinkish-white flowers here again, ‘Diabolo’s’ foliage may fade a bit in the heat of summer. ’Lemon Candy’ has chartreuse –yellow leaves starting in the early spring. This compact grower, 3-4 feet tall and wide, has flowers appearing in June that are flat white racemes. Introduced from Ball Ornamentals and developed by Peter Podaras, this little gem fits well in smaller landscapes. ‘Amber Jubilee’ has eye-catching foliage, complete with shades of orange, yellow and gold. Expect white flowers in the late spring/early summer and fall markings of red and purple. This medium-growing shrub is propagated under the First Editions label of Bailey Nurseries and was named in honor of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. ‘Little Devil’ is a beautiful, easy care variety with deep burgundy foliage. Button-like, white flowers with shell pink overtones, in the spring, help make this small wonder a sure bet for containers around the pool. ‘Coppertina’ has, as you would expect, stunning copper-colored spring leaves darkening to red as it matures. This medium sized shrub also has pinkish-white, button-like flowers in midsummer. Finally, to round out the cultivars mentioned here, is ‘Summer Wine’. ‘Summer Wine’ is a heavenly selection that has fine, deeply cut, dark crimson-red leaves covering this compact grower.
Renew your Ninebarks by cutting them low to the ground in late winter. Consider using them in mass, as a border or perhaps even as a larger screen. A versatile plant, with no serious insect or disease problems, Ninebarks now have plenty of hot colors to choose from. Be on the lookout for some of these cultivars in tree form as you can appreciate the bark on these year-round and they make great little trees in the landscape or in over-sized containers. Finally, I would like to thank The Gardener News for the opportunity it has given me over the years. A forum rich with gardening information that has enabled me to talk about great plants all these years… Thank You!