Sunday 25 August 2019

Diarmuid Gavin: Lesser spotted shrubs

Irish gardeners can be guilty of all growing the same plants. Here's how to stand out from your neighbours

Paeonia suffruticosa 'Cardinal Vaughan'
Paeonia suffruticosa 'Cardinal Vaughan'

Diarmuid Gavin

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about some of the joys of cleansing a garden of all-too-familiar shrubs and small trees. Gardens are getting smaller and therefore the space within them is at a premium. Dedicated gardeners may take great joy in our temperate climate. This results in extraordinary choice for the Irish gardener - we can grow plants that have originated in all different parts of the world - so... what's the point in growing plants that we can see and enjoy in next door's garden, in the local park or thriving by the side of a motorway?

This week, I want to offer some alternatives: plants that have wonderful features in terms of size, shape, colour and seasonal interest. They're not rare but they are unusual and special enough to provide all types of delight for garden lovers.

Many of us grow herbaceous peonies in our borders for their delightful blooms. But did you know they come in shrub form as well? The tree peony is a deciduous shrub which grows to about 6ft and is quite a showstopper in full bloom in late April and May. For sumptuous deep-purple blooms, try Paeonia suffruticosa 'Cardinal Vaughan' (pictured main). I've my eye on Paeonia 'Shimano-fuji', which has delicate pink blooms flushed a darker pink at the base. Kelways nurseries ( are the specialist suppliers here and they say the most common cause of failure with tree peonies is overwatering new plants - especially in containers - so take note!

Carpenteria californica 'Bodnant' is a beautiful summer-flowering shrub that could be planted more often. It has lovely white anemone-like flowers and glossy evergreen leaves, and has been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society prestigious Award of Garden Merit.

Grow in a moist but well-drained soil in a sunny position. This could form part of a flowering peri- meter border that includes Magnolia 'Fairy Blush'. This is a relatively newly bred form of evergreen magnolia that flowers along the stem in spring, producing pale pink lightly fragrant flowers. It has a bushy habit making it ideal for a mixed hedge and it will start producing flowers in its first few years.

Barberries (below) are very thorny so handle with care - on the other hand, they make very good intruder repellents when planted against walls. Most of us are familiar with the ubiquitous Berberis darwinii, which has small dark green leaves and a profusion of bright orange flowers in spring. Berberis georgei is less commonly planted: it's a deciduous variety that has pendants of yellow flowers in spring, which turn into clusters of amazing red berries in autumn that hang in clusters off the drooping branches.


Mahonia eurybracteata 'Soft Caress' is different, in that its the leaves have no spines, making it soft to the touch. With beautifully scented lemon-coloured flowers from August to November and fine slender foliage, it does well in the shade and makes an elegant addition to the shrubbery.

If you have acidic soil, you might consider Clethra delavayi, the sweet pepper bush. This handsome deciduous shrub has beautiful scented lily of the valley-like flowers along the stems in midsummer. It enjoys edge-of-woodland conditions similar to azaleas and rhodos: acidic soil, light shade and shelter.

Azara microphylla is a handsome little evergreen tree with an explosive surprise in January and February - hundreds of inconspicuous yellow flowers emit the most delicious vanilla fragrance that will beguile you and your garden visitors. Also ideal for early spring is Stachyurus praecox, which provides an amazing display of yellow flowers in early spring on bare branches: a wonderful sight when the garden is at such a quiet point.

Winter is a good time to appreciate those shrubs and trees with interesting bark, such as the twisted willow, Salix erythrofleuxuosa, whose curly branches in orange and red look wonderful on a frosty morning against a clear blue sky. The snakebark maples (Acer sect. Macrantha) and paperbark maples (Acer griseum) have beautiful bark, all the better to be seen when the leaves have fallen. One of the best small trees for winter interest is Arbutus x andrachnoides - it's evergreen, has white urn-shaped flowers in autumn and a vibrant cinnamon-coloured bark.

This is just my personal pick of the many wonderful, interesting shrubs and trees we can grow in this country. We don't need to be restricted by habit or convention: make every inch of your garden exciting for you!


To shop for the more rare and unusual plants, there are a couple of suppliers who delight in the different. 

Rare Plants Ireland ( is based outside Dublin and was founded in 2008, producing and supplying rare and unusual trees, shrubs and perennials. Many of these specimens were sourced during plant-hunting expeditions in Korea, Taiwan, Japan, the Azores and Sikkim (India).

Email for appointments.  Dublin's Mount Venus Nursery ( is run by Liat and Oliver Schurmann. It's a specialist nursery for unusual perennials and grasses, established in 2000. They have a reputation for providing variety and personal service and have become the favourite for professional landscapers and gardeners throughout Ireland.

Oliver and Liat have designed many show gardens and floral exhibits and have a name for creating the extraordinary.

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