Great plants for sunny garden almost everywhere, Weigela are a source of color and interest, often from both colorful flowers carried over a long period, and from colored foliage that looks great even when there are no flowers. These are easy to grow, middle-sized shrubs that look equally at home in large beds or in small courtyards, and their toughness earns them a place anywhere. Although there are quite a few known to botanists, in gardens they are almost all derived from one species, Weigela florida. That name naturally causes confusion, since it sounds like it must come from the state of Florida. In fact, it comes from the world ‘florid’, meaning ‘flushed with red’, referring to the color of the blooms or perhaps to the reddish foliage.
This plant originally came from Japan, as part of the mid-19th century importing of Japanese plants following the opening of Japan to outside trade by the American navy. It was an instant hit, and it remains a great plant for any garden. Today there are many newer forms, ranging from 12 inches to 6 feet in height, and with leaves that are green, red, purple, or variegated, and with flowers in a wide range of colors from white through pink to deep reds.
With such a profusion of forms, it is natural to see Weigela used in lots of different ways in gardens. It is chosen both for leaf color, which is there from spring to fall, or for flower color. Blooming begins in early summer, and very often, after a brief lull, starts up again for the rest of the summer and into fall, so there are almost always at least a few flowers showing. The long blooming period is a big factor in the popularity of these shrubs. Increasingly, we can have both foliage color and outstanding blooms with the modern varieties. As an extra bonus, the blooms attract not only butterflies, but hummingbirds too, bringing lots of life and excitement into your garden.
The smaller Weigela plants can be grown alone in the foreground spaces between larger shrubs, but they really excel as edging for beds, or in clusters in front of larger bushes.
All the Weigela varieties make good hedges, with the size depending of course on the variety used. To enjoy lots of blooms they are best grown with just a summer pruning, as pruning earlier or later will reduce the quantity of bloom considerably.
Weigela loves sun, so it does well on sunny slopes, on terraced banks and with other arching plants in group plantings. Larger varieties, reaching up to 8 feet, are great as background while the rest are perfect for filling the middle area of your beds, since most are between 3 and 5 feet tall.
You can also grow Weigela flat against a sunny wall or fence. Choose a larger variety, plant it at the base of the wall, and spread out the branches as they grow, keeping the plant flat against the wall. Prune as outlined below. This method means you can grow a plant while taking almost no room in beds, and it will bloom profusely.
Smaller varieties are good choices for planters, where their long period of blooming is a great asset. In planters the darker colored varieties look good, because they are seen up close, while in the garden lighter colors may be more ‘showy’, especially when seen from a distance.
Because Weigela comes in so many forms, there is always going to be one with a potential size to fit the place you have available. Take this into account, as lots of trimming to make a plant fit a space it is too big for is never a good idea.
This plant is a deciduous shrub, growing between 12 inches tall and 6 feet tall, depending on the variety. The original wild plant could grow as much as 10 feet tall. The branches are sturdy, with a soft tan-colored bark when young, and two ridges running down them from below the buds. Older stems are light gray-brown, with rougher bark that tends to crack, with deep furrows making it look rugged. Younger stems and branches have prominent ‘blisters’ on them, which are called lenticels. Short side stems grow from the previous year’s wood, and these carry most of the flowers.
The leaves are in pairs along the stems, and they are oval and pointed, with wavy edges. They are slightly glossy, 2 to 3 inches long and ½ to 1 inch wide. Wild plants have green leaves, but modern varieties have leaves of stronger colors, particularly reds and purples. The young stems of red-leaf forms are often red too. There are some variegated forms too, carrying light green leaves with broad, irregular creamy-white margins, or even purple margins.
Flower buds develop on short side-shoots growing from on older stems from the previous year, and also on the tips of new stems produced in the current season. They emerge individually, in succession, with numerous buds at each stem joint. The flowers are tubular to funnel-shaped, and 1 or 2 inches long. The mouth flares open, often with a darker exterior and/or a darker throat. The five white stamens that emerge from the mouth of the flower are conspicuous, especially in forms with dark flowers. Flower colors are available in white, pale pink, dark pink, rosy red. bright red, and lilac. Throats are usually red, but they can be yellow. Flowers often contrast with the foliage color, either darker or lighter than the flowers.
Most of the Weigela is hardy in zones 4 to 8. In colder zones it should be grown in a sheltered, sunny spot to bloom well, but its stems are normally hardy, with little or no winter damage. Full sun is best for this plant, but a few hours of shade in the day, or a little dappled shade overhead, will have little effect, especially in hotter zones.
The soil for Weigela should be well-drained, and wet soil is not a good idea. Alkaline soil seems to be preferred over acid conditions. It will grow in all types of soil, including clays, as long as they are well drained. Growth on clay will be better on slopes than in lower-lying areas. Although established plants are drought tolerant, some water is appreciated, and very dry conditions for a long period are not so desirable.
Once you have decided where to plant, dig in some organic material – anything from garden compost to peat moss is suitable. If your soil is poor, some starter fertilizer, or a mix of organic fertilizer and starter microbes is often very beneficial. Plant at the same depth as in the pot, and water well after planting. Water weekly – twice a week if the weather is hot – for the first few months, until the plant is well-established. No particular care is needed, and these tough plants establish well, and they will soon be sending up new growth.
Weigela is popular not only for its bright colors and foliage, but for its easy care, needing very little to thrive in most gardens. Some fertilizer in spring in beneficial, but not essential, and mulch will give stronger growth, especially when growing your plants on hot, sandy soil.
The relatively unusual way the Weigela flowers means that pruning is the only part of its care that needs some attention. It is best to prune annually, but in June, rather than spring. Once the first big show of blooms is over, trim back the stems that have bloomed to just an inch or two from the older wood they grew from. Cut just above a pair of leaves. Shorten back the longer stems by about one-quarter to one-third, depending on how big you are happy with your plant growing. No further trimming is desirable, although any dead stems can be removed in a spring clean-up.
Older plants should have a few of the oldest branches removed completely as part of the summer pruning, to encourage new stems to grow from the base. This will rejuvenate plants and stop them becoming old and woody. This plant is not suitable for clipping into balls and columns with regular trimming all season – something seen all too often. Hedges are best trimmed once in summer, after that first blooming, and then limited to remove any stems that have grown long. Too much trimming will seriously reduce blooming, and the graceful form of the plant
Weigela is normally free of pests and diseases – another plus for these plants. Deer normally leave them alone too.
There are in all around 11 species of Weigela growing in the East, but from a gardening point of view the only one grown is Weigela florida, and hybrids of that plants with other, closely-related species. Those other species are rarely grown, except by breeders.
The original plant seen in the West was sent to England in 1844 by the British plant explorer Robert Fortune. He saw it in a garden in Chusan, China, and bought a plant at a nursery in Shanghai. It grows wild across much of China, in Korea, and also in eastern Russia. After its introduction it was admired back in England, and soon became very popular. By the end of the 19th century new varieties were beginning to appear, including a white flowered form called ‘Mont Blanc’ created by the French nurseryman Victor Lemoine in 1898. The first purple-leaf form, ‘Foliis Purpureis’, appeared around 1921, again in France, as a seedling among a batch grown from Chinese seed. Today there are numerous varieties.
‘Wine’ Series – this group of plants, from Proven Winners®, contains a whole range of plants, all with dark burgundy-purple foliage. Among the best are:
Merlot Rose (‘Bokrafive’) – deep-pink flowers and dark red foliage on a bush around 3 feet tall and wide. Good repeat flowering.
‘Java Red’ – probably the original ‘Foliis Purpureis’. 4 feet tall, with green leaves flushed with purple-red. Dark pink flowers and red buds.
‘Tango’ – purple leaves with green undersides, and red flowers with yellow throats.
‘Minuet’ – only 2½ feet tall, with red-purple blooms and red-flushed leaves
‘Red Prince’ – a top choice, with clean red flowers on a 6-foot plant.
‘Bristol Ruby’ – an older variety with red flowers on a tall, 8-foot bush.
‘Polka’ – a Canadian creation, hardy to zone 3. Pink flowers on a 4-foot bush.
‘Bristol Snowflake’ – a vigorous bush with white blooms tinted pink.
‘Candida’ – pure white blooms. Grows to 8 feet.
‘White Knight’ – white blooms on a 6-foot bush.
‘Variegata’ – mid-green leaves edges in creamy white. A compact, mounding plant growing 6 feet tall, with light, rose-pink flowers.
‘Variegata Nana’ – similar, but only growing 3 to 4 feet tall.
French Lace™ (‘Brigela’) – green leaves boldly edged with lime green. Red flowers.
‘Rumba’ – yellow-green leaves edged in purple. Hardy, 3 feet tall, with red flowers showing a yellow throat.
Whether it’s for the foliage colors, the profusion of beautiful blooms, or the butterflies and hummingbirds, there are so many reasons to grow Weigela in your garden, that this plant is a ‘must have’ for everyone. Take a look at our current selection – there are sure to be some good ones.