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Like love at first sight, when most gardeners see a Loropetalum bush for the first time they are transfixed. How can such a plant in such extraordinary colors be real? How can this glowing vision, with neon pink blooms set against bright burgundy-red leaves be a plant I could actually grow in my garden? Well it is, and Loropetalum has become the ‘must have’ plant for many gardeners in warmer zones, and it has proved itself to be easy to grow and dependable in many different parts of the garden.
Time and time again we have been amazed by new plants coming from China and Japan, right back into the 19th century, and it remains just as true today. Close relatives of our wild witch-hazel, the slender, twisted petals of the Loropetalum flower seem to have been lifted from a China painting, and this plant will grow right alongside other more well-known Asian plants like azaleas and camellias, as well as out in sunnier parts of the garden. You don’t need green thumbs to grow this plant that looks too exotic to be easy (although it is), but you might need your sunglasses.
In all but the smallest gardens we can always use lots of bushes in the 4 to 6-foot range, and that is exactly where a mature Loropetalum bush sits. Its broad, rounded form is ideal for garden beds anywhere. Plant it among evergreens around your home – its form and leaf coloring will make a wonderful contrast to the deep greens of most green bushes used in foundation plantings, and it’s boldness adds a terrific splash of color.
Woodland areas, alongside other woodland plants like camellias, rhododendrons and azaleas is an ideal setting for the Loropetalum bush, although it doesn’t need acidic soil as much as those plants do. There can be brighter spots and direct sun in open woods, and those places are ideal. The flowers of Loropetalum make a vibrant contrast to the more muted pastels found in most woodland plants, and the foliage is very different from their dark green leaves. Especially after the blooming season is over, its leaves continue to add interest to those parts of your garden.
The Loropetalum bush is sun tolerant, and its bright colors stand out in the brightest light, so it’s a great choice for planting in sunny beds, where the warm red leaves will glow and sparkle, and the pink flowers will really pop in the sunlight, showing from yards and yards away. Plants for sunny beds are often blue or silver, so these bushes make the perfect plant contrast. When choosing a planting spot, remember that this plant blooms early in the year, when the weather can still be cool, so make sure you place it where it can be seen from windows, so that you won’t miss its glory. Tucking it in an out of the way place would be a mistake.
With its Asian origins, you can certainly use Loropetalum bushes in gardens of that style too, and it would be perfect in a calm courtyard, where its brilliance would look even more striking in a tranquil setting.
For planter boxes and pots too, Loropetalum bushes work well, with foliage right to the ground and exactly the kind of year-round beauty that we need to include in boxes, where every plant must bring a lot to the show.
Loropetalum bushes are a small group of plants, with just 3 or 4 species in it, closely related to witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana). For many gardeners, witch-hazel will be more well-known for its curious muted-yellow blooms that appear in late fall, just as the leaves of the witch-hazel are falling. An American species, it has several Chinese and Japanese relatives that bloom in winter and early spring, seen in gardens, and Loropetalum is closely related to them.
This plant has slender branches, with many growing from the base of the bush, twisting and spreading upwards and outwards elegantly. The bark is smooth and reddish-brown, and it becomes rougher and more textured as it ages, giving the base of a mature bush a rugged beauty.
The evergreen foliage is very simple, with smooth leaf shaped as rounded ovals, 1 to 2½ inches long and wide. They have a slightly rough, fuzzy surface texture, and they are held out more or less horizontally. Leaf color is variable, and an important feature of this plant. In plants closer to the wild type, summer leaves are green, turning orange in fall and then turning deep red for the winter, without falling. Garden forms have leaves that vary from green, copper, burgundy and red throughout the year, and plants with bright, all-year leaf coloring are especially desirable. On plants with darker leaves, the underside of the leaf is noticeably lighter, so red leaves will be pink underneath.
The flowers of Loropetalum are very striking, and very different from most other flowers. Even young plants bloom well, and older plants are covered in a profusion of blooms that turns the plant into a beacon. Blooming usually happens between February and April, depending on your local climate. The flowers are sweetly scented. They form along the stems of growth from the previous year, where the leaves were attached. They are in clusters of 3 to 8 flowers, often creating a round ball of blooms. Each flower has 4 petals, about ½ an inch long, which are narrow and strap-shaped, but also twisted and curled. This creates a very elegant and graceful flower, which is also striking because of its bright neon-pink color. In contrast, most wild plants have white flowers, and as garden shrubs they are quiet, muted plants that would be easily overlooked. Following flowering plants often make small seed pods, which are brown and fuzzy. They look a little like tiny acorns, with a cup supporting a small round seed.
Loropetalum bushes are hardy in warmer zones: 7, 8 and 9. They also grow well in drier zone 10 areas, such as southern California, but not in the humid subtropical zone 10 of southern Florida. Although a little restricted, this still makes them available to many gardeners across a large part of the country. In zone 7 some leaves may drop during winter, but this is not harmful, and new growth will soon come in spring.
The best soil conditions for Loropetalum bushes are moist, rich and slightly acidic. They will grow well in soils suitable for acid-loving plants, but also in neutral to slightly alkaline soils. Chalky, strongly alkaline soils are not so suitable for these plants. They will grow well in most types of soil, and are not fussy, even growing in seaside gardens. The soil should be well-drained, and organic mulch is a good way to make less-than-ideal soils more attractive, since it enriches the soil, retaining moisture and keeping it cool as well.
For the best foliage color in red-leaf forms, full sun is ideal, but partial shade is never a problem, and a few hours of direct sun each day is all that is needed. Even light full shade with a clear sky overhead will be suitable, especially in the warmest zones. There are bound to be lots of places in your garden where you can grow this beautiful plant.
Prepare the soil well by enriching it with a good amount of lime-free compost or other organic materials like rotted leaves or peat moss. Dig a wide area, and plant at the same depth as your bush is in its pot. Water well the night before planting, and also when you are planting. Mulch over the root-zone, avoiding contact with the stems or leaves. Water weekly for the first season, and then whenever there are dry spells.
You might think that a plant this gorgeous needs lots of care, but not at all. Loropetalum bushes will take care of themselves, once established, and only limited attention is needed. Some liquid fertilizer, or mild, organic granular fertilizer for acid-loving plants applied as the buds begin to open, and again shortly after flowering, will be helpful, but not essential. Watering during dry periods is important, and don’t let your plants wilt and droop because of a lack of water. Mulch will extend the intervals between the need to water. Pests and diseases are not normally problems with this plant.
If you have allowed enough room for later growth when planting – always a good idea with any plant – then pruning will not be needed. In China and Japan plants are often seen trimmed into round balls, so this is possible, but the natural look is very attractive, and saves work, so why trim? Remove any twigs and small branches that may die as your plant grows and matures – that is all that you need to do, as this plant has a naturally-beautiful pattern of growth.
There are just two or three species in the plant genus called Loropetalum, and some botanists only recognize one. These plants can also be called fringe flowers, or strap flowers. The only species seen in gardens is:
Chinese fringe flower, Loropetalum chinense – this original form was named by European botanists in 1862, and the first plants were brought to Europe by the British nursery Messrs Veitch in 1880. It may have been introduced into America around the same time. It is found in nature growing in forests and clearings on hillsides between 3,200 and 4,000 feet above sea-level, in most of China, around the Himalayas in northeastern India, and also in Japan With green leaves and white flowers this plant remained something for more specialized gardeners and collectors, who enjoy its soft, muted look. It is still sometimes available, but for gardens it has been largely displaced by:
Red Chinese fringe flower, Loropetalum chinense var. rubrum – this plant was only described in 1942, and it grows in a very restricted area along the lower parts of the Yangtze river, in Hunan province. Also known as the red Zhi flower. Since its discovery Chinese and Japanese gardeners have been collecting this plant and developing beautiful garden forms. Some of these began to arrive in America in the 1980s. In this variety the spring red leaf color of the species lasts more-or-less all year round, darkening to purple in summer. The flowers are vibrant neon pink, instead of white.
There are many garden varieties of this remarkable plant, some distinctive, and others looking very much like each other. There is some overlap among the varieties available, with the same, or very similar plants being sold with different names and trademarked names. Some of the best, different and most attractive are:
‘Black Pearl’ – a European introduction from Ronald Roos Nurseries, in Boskoop, the Netherlands. Red-purple in spring and winter, turning more greenish in summer.
‘Blush’ – bronze-red new growth turns green in summer. Significantly taller than others, this plant can reach 12 feet in height, and 6 feet across. Brought from China in 1989 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and introduced in 1993 by the National Arboretum. Also known as ‘Monraz’ and ‘Raspberry Fringe’.
Crimson Fire™ (‘PIILC-I’) – only 3 feet tall and spreading, the leaves stay red all year round. The flowers are bright pink.
‘Daybreak’s Flame’ – red-mahogany leaves turn dark green in summer, and back to red in winter. Introduced from the Kunming Botanical Garden, China.
Ever Red® (‘Chang Nian Hong’) – this variety keeps the spring red leaf coloring all year round, more than any other variety does. The plant breeder and collector Mark Griffin brought it from China some years ago, as part of his work with the tree and shrub expert Dr. Michael A. Dirr, for their Plant Introductions company.
‘Hines Purple Leaf’– new burgundy growth matures to deep purple in summer. Also sold as Plum Delight™, and it appears to be the same, or very similar to, ‘Purple Majesty’. This variety was introduced into America in the 1990s, probably from China.
Purple Daydream® (‘PIILC-III’) – usually just 3 feet tall and up to 4 feet wide, ideal for edging. Much darker flowers than most varieties, more of a red-pink but still vibrant. The red spring leaves turn dark purple for the rest of the year.
Purple Diamond® (‘Shang-hi’) – 5 to 6 feet tall, with brilliant pink flowers and red leaves turning purple and staying that way. Vigorous and very colorful.
‘Ruby’ – an established variety that is semi-dwarf, growing no more than 5 feet tall, with a dense, bushy form. The flowers are bright pink, and red spring leaves turn dark green in summer and then back to bright red in fall and winter.
Once you see this plant in bloom, there is no way to garden without it. You must have it, so plant one in your garden as soon as you can, to enjoy one of the most spectacular and remarkable garden shrubs there is.