Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
February, 2011
Regional Report

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Evergreen fatsia and heavenly bamboo readily tolerate the wide range of soils and conditions in our regions.


Southerners have a different idea of what "evergreens" are and how to use them. It's not just conifers around here, though we do love a nice juniper. February is the month to plant them all.

Tropical Evergreens
The traditional conifer evergreen carpet and hedge certainly thrives in the Tropics, if you pick the right plants. Choose creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis) for a dense, fine-textured blanket in silvery-blue or blue-gray tones. Creeping juniper is drought tolerant, and the cultivar 'Bar Harbor' resists damage from salt spray. Prickly parson's juniper (J.davurica) mounds up, while shore juniper (J. conferta) spills down in tight chains that look like dreadlocks. 'Blue Pacifica' shore juniper is most common, and 'Emerald Sea,' while a bit taller than the others, is the most cold hardy.

Then there are the plants we call cedars. Bermuda cedar (Juniperus bermudiana) and pencil or red cedar (J. virginiana) are much beloved, as is the western red cedar (Thuja plicata) that lines your grandmother's cedar chest.

Classics Hollies Revisited
When I was a child, I thought holly was that just the plant with berries seen on picturesque, snowy Christmas cards. In fact, there is a whole family of evergreen hollies suited for our regions, particularly the Southern Coasts. They add a stately, rather formal air to the landscape and provide berries for the birds and the holiday table. As a typically misfit child, it would have been good to know that two such stalwart plants bear my name. 'Nellie Stevens' holly (Ilex x 'Nellie R. Stevens'), is a cross between Chinese and English hollies developed in Maryland in the 1950s. Stately at 15-20 feet, very attractive with or without berries, and useful as a focal point or background plant, this one is a favorite of nesting cedar waxwings and robins. 'Mary Nell' holly (I. 'Mary Nell') was introduced by the venerable Alabama plantsman, Tom Dodd, who selected this vigorous holly in 1981. If you want a dense, rather prickly hedge that you can prune or not, seek out this shrub.

While these hollies perform well in sun on the Coasts, they are seen in semi shade locations further south. Dahoon holly (I. cassine) is a small tree with a loose form suited for wet areas and native to both our regions. It is evergreen in the Tropics but may lose its leaves in our coldest areas. Dahoon is particularly satisfying to grow, its smooth leaves and scattered berries make a charming addition to a bed with Louisiana iris or flag iris.

Shades of Green
Here in the South, evergreen is not all dark green with blue overtones. We grow the entire green section of the color wheel, and some of our evergreens lean strongly towards the yellow side. Fetterbush (Lyonia lucida) is a native that brings a bright and shiny green to the garden party. Its fragrant clusters of tiny, bell-shaped flowers bloom on the old wood, like azaleas. Both should be pruned after the blooms finish, not before, to preserve the flowering wood. Japanese mock orange, more often called pittosporum (P. tobira), features blunted leaves that curve slightly down. Medium green and satiny on top, dull and lighter underneath, their effect is distinctly rounded and upbeat. Sizes range from the 2 feet tall 'Wheeler's Dwarf' to the 15 foot standard pittosporum, but most popular are the intermediates, usually compact, dense with foliage and about the size of a small chest freezer. Nearly carefree, slow-growing and versatile, feijoa (Feijoa sellowiana) is an underused evergreen that is gaining popularity for its edible flowers. The shrub's leaves are a matte green, oval and cupped slightly upward with silver shades on the undersides. The quarter-sized flowers are thick, with velvety white petals surrounding a loud, red center that looks like a tiny bottlebrush. The fruits are edible, too. The queen of the yellow-green side in the evergreen equation might be fatsia (Fatsia japonica). Like other plants popular early in the 20th century such as coleus and passion vine, fatsia has been discovered by gardeners once again. Its striking coarse texture comes from large palmate, or hand-shaped, leaves that look like they have been polished. Adding to the tropical effect are cane-like trunks, exposed on older fatsia plants as the lower leaves drop off to create a natural tree form.

Two other long-beloved evergreen shrubs deserve consideration: heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) and the poorly named Oregon grape holly (Mahonia bealei). The former is quite nearly indestructible and is covered with green or multi-colored leaflets year round. The latter is not limited to Oregon, and is neither a grape nor a holly, but nevertheless, is a standout shrub for shady spots. Noted for green and purple leaves and yellow flowers, this mahonia will be at home in every garden along the Southern Coasts. Perhaps the lady who calls it "Mardi Gras plant"is on to something.

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