Nancy Brachey

Three cheers for an all-season shrub

A beautiful pieris in full bloom in early April.
A beautiful pieris in full bloom in early April. Observer file photo

For sheer beauty, not much competes with azaleas, dogwoods, cherries and redbuds at this time of year. But I think one lesser-known shrub could join them if only it were planted more often in Piedmont landscapes.

It is Pieris japonica, an undemanding evergreen shrub that is well-suited for part shade. More important, it is one of those plants that look good in all seasons.

The flowers, usually white, sometimes pink, are drooping clusters of roundish blooms that first appear in March and last into April.

This is a beautiful sight, but more loveliness is ahead as the shrub puts out new growth, which is a combination of light green, red and bronze, turning green eventually.

This is so interesting that it almost makes you forget the flowers are fading. Some of the newer, named selections of pieris, such as Mountain Fire, have bright red foliage that will turn green.

And if that isn’t enough, the plant produces buds of next year’s growth in midsummer that are shaped like the full blooms of spring. These last through the fall and winter, a pretty and interesting sight that contributes to the year-round beauty of pieris. It is an ericaceous plant, meaning it takes an acid soil as azaleas do.

The typical Pieris japonica grows slowly to about 10 feet, but can be kept shorter by occasional light pruning. However, if you want a shorter plant, it is best to choose one of the named varieties that stay shorter. There are dwarf forms that stay as low as 2 feet, others that grow to 3 or 4 feet.

Plant tags will tell you the height and width, so take time when you are shopping to read the details of height and width so the plant will suit the space at maturity. This should be a guiding rule when you make any selection of a shrub or tree. It will avoid severe pruning in years to come, which can affect the shape and beauty of the plant.

A little light pruning may be done by simply cutting off the spent blooms in late spring. But this is not mandatory. Should more pruning be required to keep the plant below windows or out of a walkway, do it during or immediately after the bloom season. (The blooms look pretty in a vase.) A well-established plant will produce new growth rather quickly. Watch for that. It is the signal for the start of a new year for this all-season shrub.

Nancy Brachey:

Ask Nancy

Q. I am planting azaleas now. Do I do anything special because they are being planted so close to summer?

A. Dig the hole as deep as the rootball but wider by at least several inches to encourage root development, which is shallow in azaleas. Set out the plants in loose, organic soil, with the rootball a bit above ground level. Then cover the root zone with a light mulch. Summer is when you will have to pay close attention to watering the plants, which will take at least a year to get established. Do not count on rainfall this summer. It may fall regularly, but probably will not.