Saturday 1 October 2016

Budding talents of pieris are what make it 'flame of the forest'

Gerry Daly

Published 10/04/2016 | 02:30

Pieris ‘Katsura’ opens with red buds and pretty pale pink flowers
Pieris ‘Katsura’ opens with red buds and pretty pale pink flowers

Pieris is widely known as 'flame of the forest', an attractive and easily remembered name, and it was only when this name gained general currency a few decades ago that this wonderful shrub began to appear in gardens. Before that, it was mainly grown in botanic gardens and large collections. The name 'flame of the forest' is a reference to the brilliantly bright red new foliage as it emerges in spring. However, before the leaves come, pieris produces a fine crop of flowers.

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The flowers are generally glistening white, translucent and pearly, especially when the sun shines on them. They are often described as being of cow-bell shape, with an opening at the bottom. The flowers are carried on hanging or arching flower strings, dangling from the stem. The flowers are shaped like some kinds of heather and pieris is part of the heather family. The strings of pearly flowers are carried in a cluster at the tips of the twigs, covering the whole bush.

Being evergreen with narrow, long leaves, the white flowers have a perfect background. Not all kinds of pieris flowers are white, some have a pink touch and some are almost wine-red. The pure white kinds have green flower buds carried over winter and those with pink or red flowers have red buds. 'Blush' has red buds and flowers that open to pink and later fade to white. 'Valley Valentine' has dark red flowers and 'Katsura', pictured, opens from red buds with very pretty pale pink flowers that have a flush of dark pink at the tip.

The flowers of these varieties are followed by coppery-red leaves. 'Purity' has the purest white flowers but its new leaves are green, so it does not offer a second show of interest.

'Mountain Fire' has shimmering white flowers followed by red-brown young leaves. The best variety for spectacular spring foliage is the aptly named 'Forest Flame'.

It has glistening white flowers followed by bright red young leaves that turn to pink, then cream and later green. It offers sustained ornament for nearly three months in spring and early summer. A touch of blue, such as scilla flowers, camassia or bluebells, or pulmonaria, highlights the red-pink foliage.

Like many heather-family plants, pieris needs an acidic soil. If the soil is too limey, the leaves tend to turn yellow due to iron deficiency and growth and flowering are reduced or halted. When planting in limey soil, dig in lots of organic material. Pieris benefits from a mulch of rotted leaves in spring each year to help increase soil acidity. Give a little shelter, if possible. The young leaves can be caught by late frost in April but the shrub recovers well.

Short back and sides? How to give grass a good trim

Q: Have you any ideas for tidying up ornamental grasses? I have cut them back hard in other years but they look strange and seem to get weaker from being trimmed.

P Kelly, Dublin 13

A: Grasses are very natural in appearance and a severe trimming back leaves them looking chopped off. Try simply tugging away the oldest foliage, which rests on the ground or just above. The base of the old leaves is rotted and the dead foliage comes away easily with a gentle tug. This is usually enough to tidy up a grass plant without spoiling its shape. Hard cutting back of green leaves can weaken growth.

Send your questions to gerrydaly@independent.ie. Questions can only be answered on this page.

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