Little Devil NinebarkPhysocarpus opulifolius 'Donna May' (PP#22,634)
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Physocarpus opulifolius 'Donna May' (PP#22,634)
Outdoor Growing zone
The Little Devil™ Ninebark is a small deciduous shrub growing about 4 feet tall and wide. It has dark, intense purple foliage from spring to fall, without any summer fading. It stays compact and bushy, so it’s ideal for the front of beds, covering slopes, planting in rough areas or making low hedges and borders. It also has attractive pink flowers in spring, followed by clusters of purple inflated seed pods that decorate it in the winter months. A great plant for cold regions and difficult locations.
Full sun produces the best leaf coloring on the Little Devil™ Ninebark, but it grows in partial shade if it must. It is very cold-hardy, even in zone 3 and grows in warmer zones too, even zone 7. It grows in all imaginable soils, from gravels to clays and from wet to dry, surviving where very little else will – and looking great. It is usually ignored by pests, diseases and deer, with good resistance to powdery mildew in hotter zones, and it’s drought resistant, needing virtually no care once established. It can be trimmed if needed.
Ninebarks have always been top of the list for tough shrubs in difficult places, especially in the coldest parts of the country. Trouble is, the wild plant is a bit big and sprawling, and when you have a smaller garden, or smaller space to fill, it isn’t such a good choice. In the last few decades we have seen some very nice varieties developed, with attractive purple foliage. The variety called Diabolo is especially bold and beautiful, but again it grows too tall. Thanks to the homework of David Zlesak, a professor at the University of Minnesota, we now have the perfect child of the devil – a compact, bushy shrub growing no more than 4 feet tall, with rich purple leaves and attractive pink flowers – the Little Devil Ninebark. You can clip it or not, and grow it just about anywhere, in the most difficult spots, and it keeps on keeping on – you just can’t keep a good devil down.
The Little Devil Ninebark is a small deciduous shrub growing quickly into an upright, dense bush that is no more than 3 to 4 feet tall and wide. It has dense branching and the leaves are close together along the stems. Depending on the conditions it will grow at least 6 inches a year, and up to 2 feet in a single year when young. The bark is peeling and reddish-brown, showing multiple colors in the peeling layers, from gray to beige, orange and tan. It is this feature that gives these plants their common name of nine barks. The leaves sprout in spring a dark purple color, and that holds well through the summer and into fall – a good, solid purple effect that is stable from spring to early winter. The leaves are about 2 inches long, divided into three lobes a little like a small maple leaf. They are of course along the new growth, but also in clusters on older stems, making for a dense and leafy bush.
In late spring, among the new leaves, clusters of light pink flowers appear, making a bright showing and adding a lovely seasonal touch. After the blossoms fade we don’t really notice, but they develop into unusual inflated seed pods, in clusters. These are green at first but by fall they take on purple tones too, especially where the sun falls on them. They become another ornamental feature once the leaves fall, lasting well through early winter.
For a tough little shrub, able to handle the most difficult garden positions, you can’t do better than the Little Devil Ninebark. Use it to fill the front of beds, on banks and slopes, and to brighten semi-natural parts of the garden. Grow it as an edging along a path or driveway, clipped or unclipped. It does clip easily into a tight hedge – space plants at 18 inch or 24 inch intervals for a dense, continuous look.
This is a shrub for all the colder parts of the country, thriving without any winter damage even in zone 3. It grows well everywhere until it meets zone 8, where it is not so suitable.
Full sun will give you the best foliage coloring on the Little Devil Ninebark, but it will take a little shade and still grow well enough. It grows across a wide range of soils, from gravels and sands to clays and urban soils. It grows in both wet and dry soils, and in areas under the black walnut tree, which poisons the soil to many plants. There are few places where this plant will not survive, once it has a little TLC for the first few weeks after planting. It is drought tolerant, and frankly, hard to kill.
Pests and diseases very rarely bother the Little Devil Ninebark. Deer only eat it when desperate, and it is generally untroubled. After its release it proved to be resistant to powdery mildew that can bother ninebarks in hot zones. Although it is common to trim this plant, try growing it untrimmed, to develop a more natural, but still small, form. It will become arching and vase-like, and flower more prolifically, making a lovely show – and it’s a lot less work, which is always good.
The ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius, grows along river banks and on gravel flats, as well as around the edges of woodlands, all the way through the east, from New York state down to Florida. The most popular variety with purple leaves is Diablo® (‘SMNPOBLR’). which was released in 2000 by Spring Meadow Nursery. David Zlesak, a professor at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul, wanted to create a dwarf purple-leaf ninebark. In 2001 he took pollen from the wild dwarf ninebark, Physocarpus opulifolius var. nana, and pollinated a plant of Diablo with it. Some of the seedlings had purple leaves and were a smaller size. In 2004 he took pollen from the best of those seedlings and used it on a plant of dwarf ninebark. In the summer of 2005 he was able to select a plant from that batch of seedlings that was very dwarf, with rich purple leaves. He named it ‘Donna May’, and after further trials it was patented in 2012. It is released today under the First® Editions brand.
Every garden needs tough, reliable plants that just get on with it. This is especially true in cold zones, where winter will soon destroy weaker plants. With the Little Devil Ninebark you don’t need to worry, it’s a survivor. But order right away, as everyone is thinking the same thing, making this one devil of a plant to keep in stock.