In the Garden:
The trailing flowers of pieris make a delicate springtime display.
In Praise of Pieris
My interest in pieris began ten years ago when I was mentally designing the greenbelt that surrounds our property. I wanted a low-maintenance evergreen shrub with seasonal interest that would be equally happy in sun or shade. As I scoured local nurseries for just the right plant, I kept finding pieris. There was no single feature that attracted me most, but the combination of all its attributes convinced me that pieris was just the right plant to ease the transition from greenbelt native understory to our more formal landscape.
Also called andromeda, pieris is a medium-tall shrub that requires little care and can be grown from USDA Zones 4 to 8. Like other members of the heath family (Ericaceae), which includes rhododendrons and azaleas, pieris requires an acid pH, humusy soil, and organic mulch to keep the roots happy.
The rich green, glossy foliage of pieris stands out year-round, and in early spring a profusion of small, cup-shaped flowers ranging from deep pink through cream to white hangs in clusters like strings of beads. As a bonus, the flowers of some cultivars emit a light, fruity fragrance reminiscent of grape hyacinths. When the bronze-red new leaves appear, pieris assumes a soft, feathery look that can last as long as a month until the new leaves turn green. In winter the flower buds, which range in color from green to dark red, look striking against the leaves. And pieris leaves don't curl in cold weather and look sorry like rhododendron leaves do.
Green all year and dense in habit, pieris makes an excellent informal screen, either by itself or combined with other broadleaved evergreens, such as laurels, rhododendrons, and hollies. Lilies, daffodils, and other shade-loving plants make a pleasing scene against a backdrop of pieris. A single pieris can be a good focal point in a shady, secluded corner. For any garden that is lovingly tended and frequently visited, pieris shows well, even under close inspection.
Pieris performs well in full shade to full sun and will bloom beautifully in either. To provide the woods-like acidic soil conditions, I work 2 to 3 inches of peat into the top foot of soil when I plant. In humus-poor soils, you can add another 2 to 3 inches of peat. Other organic materials, such as composted leaves or pine needles, also will help loosen the soil.
The roots require excellent drainage to prevent waterlogging and to avoid phytophthera, a fungus that causes root rot. If your soil drains poorly, consider planting pieris in raised beds.
Pieris can be planted in spring or fall, when weather is cool and rainfall abundant. After removing the plant from its pot, tease out about an inch of roots all around the rootball with your fingers to encourage roots to grow out into the surrounding soil. The plant should be set at the same depth it was growing in the nursery pot. To allow for their mature size, space plants 6 feet apart. (Dwarf cultivars can be planted closer.) For a more immediate effect, you can plant them as close as 3 feet apart and later transplant them farther apart.
It's important to water well the first year. Once the plants are established, irrigation is less crucial, but a thorough watering during summer dry periods is beneficial.
In spring I fertilize with a 10-6-4 formulation applied at half rate. Proper soil preparation and an acidic mulch should prevent chlorosis.
Since pieris are shallow-rooted, mulching is essential. I rake wood chips or pine needles over the soil surface, but you can use any organic mulch material. Other than removing dead or broken limbs, it's not necessary to prune pieris. The natural form is picturesque, but you can certainly prune them back if they overgrow their spots in the landscape.
Pieris japonica cultivars begin blooming around mid-March. 'Valley Valentine' is one of the earliest bloomers. It has exceptionally glossy, dark green leaves that contrast with very elegant white flowers. This compact low-grower reaches about 3 feet tall and bears a profusion of pink and white flowers that appear deep pink from a distance.
The bright red new leaves of 'Mountain Fire' provide a fiery display for several weeks. The flowers are white and less showy than those of other pieris, but this cultivar takes more sun and is quite vigorous. It grows into a 5-foot-tall plant with a pleasing asymmetrical shape. 'Scarlet O'Hara', a similar cultivar, has showier flowers but does not hold its fiery color as long.
I've combined pieris with a few of its later-blooming relatives, enkianthus and leucothoe, both white-flowered shrubs. Even during the quiet months from midsummer through early fall, the graceful form of pieris creates a cool, serene feeling among the deep shadows of our native hemlocks and Douglas firs.
If you're looking for an abundant display of colorful foliage, and the bonus of fragrant springtime flowers, one of the many cultivars of Pieris japonica is sure to be a delightful addition to your garden.
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