Simply Beautiful Stewartia

In spring, when everything bursts into flower, the world is full of trees in bloom.  But springtime is also the time to plan and plant ahead for the season, anticipating flowering trees and shrubs with a different time of bloom, like Stewartias. Their large, ivory, Camellia-like flowers would be worthy of a spring show, but they arrive in late summer when gardens are in need of their beauty.

The fact is, stewartias are welcome landscape additions at just about any time, and you can find one to fit just about any size garden. They are also plants that are showy in all seasons, whether in flower or not. Their mottled bark and beautiful statuesque habits are always lovely, and in the fall you can anticipate colorful leaves. Here are some of the best of these well-behaved Asian trees and shrubs.

Japanese Stewartia

Bees pollinate the blooms of Japanese Stewartia and other species.

If you have the room, Japanese stewartia (Stewartia japonica) is an all-around great tree that offers four seasons of interest. Growing between 20 and 40 feet tall, with a pyramidal canopy, its branches have slightly toothed, ovoid leaves that are a cooling dark green during the growing season. In the fall, they flame up in shades of yellow, red, and burgundy, putting on a great show.

Before all of that foliage drama, Japanese stewartia flaunts its family relationship with camellias by pumping out beautiful, white, Camellia-like flowers.  Each bloom is at least 2 inches wide and features five to eight petals surrounding a center of golden-orange stamens. While only minimally fragrant, the flowers are maximally elegant and borne abundantly on trees that are hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5-8. 

Japanese Stewartia develops fantastic mottled bark as it ages.

In the colder months, when both leaves and flowers are things of the past, Japanese stewartia continues to shine with multi-colored, exfoliating bark.  This bark, which peels gradually from the tree, looks a little like camouflage, but a lot more interesting, with patches of gray, sepia, tawny orange-brown, and taupe covering the trunk. It is a feast for the eyes at all times, but especially in seasons when visual interest may be at a premium.

Tall Stewartia

The large-leaved tall stewartia can reach 25 feet at maturity.

Tall stewartia (Stewartia monodelpha) is another native of Japan, hardy to USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 6-8, with characteristics similar to those of Japanese stewartia.  Young plants have a somewhat shrubby habit, but assume a tree form with age, reaching up to 25 feet tall in height.  Tall stewartia features large, dark-green leaves that turn deep red in the fall.  The bark does not exfoliate as colorfully as that of Japanese stewartia, but as the tree ages, the bark smoothes out and turns a stunning shade of cinnamon brown. The camellia-like flowers are more cupped in shape than those of other stewartias and sport attractive anthers in their centers.

Chinese Stewartia

Chinese stewartia is relatively compact. (Image by Kathering Wagner-Reiss)

Chinese stewartia (Stewartia sinenesis), which is hardy to Zones 5-7, can be grown in tree or shrub form.  Left to its own devices, it will reach 15 to 25 feet tall, but like other stewartias, it can be kept smaller when pruned after flowering.  The white flowers are somewhat smaller than those of Japanese stewartia but are profuse and surrounded by leaves that are reddish when emerging in spring, dark green in summer, and red again in the fall.  The cinnamon-brown bark exfoliates in strips to reveal smooth, tan underbark, sometimes with pinkish overtones. 

Mountain Stewartia

The  Asian stewartias have American cousins, the best known is Stewartia ovata, sometimes known as mountain stewartia or mountain camellia.  Native to the southeastern United States, and hardy to Zones 5-9, it is a little smaller than Japanese stewartia with a height and spread of 10 to 15 feet.  It also excels in versatility because it can be grown as a tree or a multi-stemmed shrub.  Like its Japanese relative and true to its common name, it features Camellia-like flowers and leaves that glow red and orange in the fall.  Its gray-brown bark, while attractively ridged and furrowed, does not exfoliate like that of the Japanese species.  Still, for those hankering for stewartias, but confined to smaller spaces, mountain stewartia is an excellent choice.

Stewartia Relatives

Franklinia blooms are attractive to lots of different pollinators.

Stewartia and camellia are both members of the Theaceae or tea family.  Their equally beautiful relatives include the all-American Franklinia tree (Franklinia alatamaha), which was discovered in Colonial America and now extinct in the wild. Specimens of this beautiful small tree can be found at many botanical gardens and arboreta. They are also available at select garden centers.

All the stewartias make excellent stand-alone specimens, but can also anchor partly shaded garden beds, and situations that resemble their native habitats at the edges of wooded areas. They thrive best in rich, consistently moist soil and locations that are protected from harsh winds.  To get a young specimen off to a good start, mix the soil in the planting hole with a nutritious soil amendment like Fafard Premium Topsoil, which is ideal for boosting the soil of newly planted trees and shrubs.  Water regularly while the plants establish sturdy root systems and mulch generously around, but not touching the plants’ trunks or main stems.

Spring Container Garden Tips

There is nothing like a colorful spring container to brighten the garden.

Every year on May first, home and business owners in Annapolis, Maryland create May baskets in an official celebration of May Day.  The May baskets, which appear on porches, stoops, and front sidewalks, are judged and prizes are awarded, but every basket shouts “Spring.”

As temperatures warm up, we all want to shout “Spring,” and there is no better way to do so than to fill containers with exuberant blooms and greenery.  You don’t have to wait until May Day either.

Pick a Pot

Invest in well-made containers that make you happy!

Choose containers in sizes, shapes, and colors that make you happy. Your “basket” doesn’t have to be a basket, though wicker and woven containers have a spring-like lightness.  Single large planters provide drama, while a cluster of small to mid-size pots creates visual excitement.  If the chosen container does not have drainage holes in the bottom, either create the holes or plant up a slightly smaller, lightweight container that has drainage holes and slip the planted container into the decorative pot.  This “pop in, pop out” strategy also works well for quick changes.  Your early spring display may fade and pop-in containers make it easy to substitute a fresh arrangement that will brighten things up later in the season.

If you are using a large or heavy container, make sure to position it in the desired spot when it is empty to avoid muscle strain later on.

Choosing the Container Rainbow

Pansies are spring standbys that everyone loves.

Garden centers, big box stores, and even supermarkets are full of spring-blooming specimens, from perennial hellebores to winsome pansies and violas.  For a longer-lasting arrangement, choose plants with one or two open flowers and plenty of buds.

When you plan your container display, buy enough plants to give a full appearance, but allow for a little growth room.  If you aren’t sure, buy a few extra small plants.  When your containers are full, you can always plug the extras into smaller decorative pots, or, if you have garden space, find spots for them in beds and borders.  Make sure to add a quality potting mix, like Fafard Ultra Container Mix With Extended Feed, to your shopping cart.

Exciting Container Garden Mixes

Primroses, hyacinths, English daisies, daffodils, and other colorful spring flowers make great filler flowers.

Florists have long used the “thriller, filler, spiller” formula for mixed planters because it is easy and it works.  Don’t be afraid to combine cut branches, which can be plugged right into the soil, with annual or perennial plants. 

Pussy willows, in the form of either branches or small weeping standards, make great thrillers. (If you use cut branches be aware that they will root themselves quickly.)  Even as the “pussies” or catkins drop off, the young green leaves are attractive.  Cut forsythia or other flowering branches also work well.   The “filler” in your container arrangement might be potted daffodils, tulips, or hyacinths, or for smaller containers, dainty primroses or violas.  If you happen to have a large swathe of snowdrops or crocuses in the garden, dig up a clump or two and use them as part of your selection of “fillers”.  You can replant after the flowers fade.

For “spillers” small-leafed ivies work really well and variegated types add visual interest.  Shade-tolerant tradescantias like ‘Zebrina’, with its boldly striped leaves, spill beautifully.   

Container Garden Color Combos

A two-color planting is easy to create and always looks great.

Some of the best container arrangements contain only one or two colors.  A large urn filled with a  solid mass of blue grape hyacinths or violas makes a compelling statement.  If you want a little variation, use those same grape hyacinths in a mixture of darker and lighter blue. 

Color wheel opposites, like orange and purple, are eye-catchers in containers.  Create a carnival in a basket by combining dark purple and orange pansies.  For something a little more subdued, try pale green hellebores with pale pink tulips.

Spring Container Garden Aftercare

When the spring plantings are past their peak, and frost warnings have passed, it is time to plant summer container garden plants.

Once you plant your containers, keep them well-watered but not soggy.  Deadhead faded flowers to encourage rebloom in plants like pansies that will continue to pump out flowers until the summer really heats up.  For once-blooming specimens like daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips, carefully dig up and swap out spent plants for fresh ones, which keeps the floral show going without the necessity of replanting the entire container. Plant the bulbs in the garden to enjoy the following spring.

First and foremost, have fun with your container arrangements, knowing that while they may please others—or even win prizes—they have to delight you. 

Easy Succulent House Plants

Echeverias, with their pretty rosettes of foliage, are easy and a visual treat.

Succulent plants are riding a wave of popularity right now.  Striking, easy to care for, and available in a variety of shapes and colors, they make perfect house plants.  Some indoor gardeners amass a collection of specimen plants, while others combine different species or varieties into indoor gardens, arrangements, or even wreathes.  The possibilities are many and the limitations are few.  The following are some of the best.

The Healing Plant: Aloe vera

Aloe vera has been a kitchen stalwart because its soothing sap is a great topical remedy for burns and other injuries.  The fleshy leaves are erect, fanning out from the plant’s center and tapering at the ends.  Some are attractively spotted, with leaf edges that are slightly toothed. 

As with most other succulents, the plants flourish best in bright indirect sunlight and need a well-drained potting mix. Overwatering or lack of drainage will result in root rot and eventual plant death, so even if your aloe lives near the kitchen sink, do not kill it with the “kindness” of overwatering.  Breaking off leaves to doctor scrapes or burns will not harm the rest of the plant.

Choice Crassula

Jade or money plant (Crassula ovata) is a long-lived native of South Africa with a branching habit and fleshy, rounded leaves.  Left to its own devices a healthy jade plant can become tree-like and rise between 2 and 3 feet tall. Though statuesque and striking, it is not noted for its clusters of starry white winter flowers, which may not even appear on indoor specimens. 

For dramatic flowers, try the closely-related propeller plant (Crassula perfoliata).  Unlike the branching jade, it features propeller-like grey-green leaves that jut out from single stems. When in bloom, the plants produce vivid red flower heads made up of scores of tiny blossoms that last up to a month. Another winning crassula is Crassula spiralis, with its bright green, spiraling, angular succulent leaves.  Growing to only 6 inches tall, it is the perfect succulent for small spaces. (Click here to view a fine collection of Crassula from Mountain Crest Gardens.)

Vibrant Kalanchoe

Blossfeld’s flowering kalanchoe (Kalanchoe blossfeldiana) is another branching Crassulaceae member and a much-loved indoor plant. The glossy green leaves are fleshy and nicely scalloped, sometimes with reddish edges.  It is known for its long-lasting umbels of flat-topped clusters of small, single flowers that rise above the foliage and last for months. Petal colors include white, shades of pink, red, orange, and yellow.  Some retailers may also carry a more opulent, double-flowered kalanchoe variety sold under the trade name, Calandiva.

Whether single or double-flowered, flowering kalanchoe is easy to grow, though it can be tricky getting it to rebloom (click here for details).  Be sure to check the leaves before you water.  If the foliage is plump and firm, the plant has all the moisture it needs.  If the leaves seem flaccid, water sparingly.   Sometimes the stems of established plants grow “leggy”, with relatively few leaves on elongated stems. Fix that by pinching the stems back by about one-third. This promotes branching.

Succulent Roses

Rose-form echeverias (Echeveria spp. and hybrids) are among the most beautiful succulent plants. Their dense, fleshy leaves overlap like rose petals and may be rounded or distinctly pointed at the ends. The succulent, low-growing rosettes bloom in a range of colors from near-black, to shades of brighter and darker green, to grey-green. Varieties with grey-green leaves may also be glaucous as if each leaf is covered with a powdery translucent veil.  Some echeveria foliage sports reddish or pinkish overtones.  Flashier varieties are variegated with contrasting stripes. (Click here to view an excellent selection of Echeveria from Mountain Crest Gardens.)

Widely hybridized, echeverias are native to the New World and hail originally from Mexico and parts of Central and South America. When mature, they are compact, growing only 3 to 5 inches tall and up to 6 inches wide.  Happy echeverias may eventually flower or even produce offsets, which can be grown into new plants.

Succulent Snake Plant

Sansevieria trifasciata is known by many common names, including snake plant, viper’s bowstring hemp, and even “mother-in-law’s tongue (presumably for its sword-shaped foliage).  It is an impressive upright plant with narrow, sharply-tipped green leaves, each with a vertical gray-green central stripe. Jutting skyward, the plants may grow up to 4 feet tall outdoors in frost-free climates, but generally, reach only about 2 feet indoors in containers.

Species snake plants are striking and sculptural all by themselves, but sansevieria fanciers can also buy interesting varieties like ‘Black Coral’, featuring silver, horizontal bands. All snake plants are long-lived and resilient and reputedly help clean indoor air.

Good Conditions, Happy Plants

Since succulents have evolved to conserve moisture in their leaves, potting mediums must be free draining.  If you use a potting mix like Fafard Natural and Organic Potting Mix, combine it with fine gravel or sand to increase drainage.  Once installed in well-drained containers, water the plants sparingly.  If you live in a cold-winter climate, your succulents will appreciate an outdoor vacation during the late spring and summer months.  Position the containers in a semi-shaded, protected spot, and make sure to tip pots to drain away excess water after rainstorms.  When night temperatures start to drop in early fall, return plants to their bright indoor locations.

Celebrate the Wintery Beauty of Florist’s Cyclamen

Even when not in bloom, cyclamen leaves continue to look lovely.

Florists’ cyclamen (Cyclamen persicum hybrids) is a great imposter.  Despite the Latin name persicum, they are not from Persia (modern-day Iran) but hailed from nearby countries, including Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Algeria, and Tunisia. Though the graceful flowers might make you think of orchids, cyclamens actually reside in the primrose family, Primulaceae.  The leaves are also cleverly disguised, with patterning that might be mistaken for marble or damask fabric.

Subterfuge aside, florists’ cyclamens beguile holiday plant buyers with their ravishing good looks, and every winter multitudes of them find their way into homes, offices, houses of worship, and other public and private spaces.

Cyclamen with Dancing Flowers and Swirling Leaves

Rising 6 to 10 inches tall and equally wide, cyclamen plants dazzle with basal mounds of heart-shaped leaves marbled in silvery shades.  They almost swirl before your eyes. Slender stems support nodding buds that resemble tightly furled umbrellas. Once open, each bloom features five backswept petals that may be pink, red, violet, lavender, white, or in combinations of two or more of these colors.  The petal edges are either smooth or exuberantly ruffled.  The combination of swaying stems and vibrant colors has led more than one observer to liken a pot of cyclamen in full bloom to a flock of butterflies. 

Cyclamen’s Wild Ancestors

Cyclamen persicum is the primary wildflower descendent to most cultivated Cyclamen.

In the beginning, Cyclamen persicum was a pretty wildflower that barely hinted at the charms of its modern domestic descendants.  The species made it to Europe around 1700, but breeders first took an interest in them in the early nineteenth century and have been working on them ever since. Most breeding occurs in England, continental Europe, and Japan.  All of that breeding and propagating work set the stage for cyclamens to burst onto the mass-merchandising scene nearly 50 years ago.

New Cyclamens Get Bigger and Better

Bigger flowers in more diverse color combinations are sought by plant breeders.

Consumers have always loved big flowers, so breeders have made that trait a priority.  Once they bulked the flowers up, plantsmen produced larger plants with a wider range of flower colors.  Double flowers and those with contrasting picotee petal edges also emerged from the selective breeding process. Each year it seems that the flowers get bigger, bolder, and more numerous.

Fragrant Cyclamen

One trait that was all but lost in the breeding process was fragrance. But that began to change around 2000, when hybridizers started crossing Cyclamen persicum with a fragrant Mediterranean species, Cyclamen purpurascens.  The resulting plants were somewhat smaller than standard florists’ cyclamen, but boasted pronounced fragrance, sometimes reminiscent of roses. Now scented varieties are available in many places—to find them just follow your nose in the greenhouse section of a well-stocked nursery or garden center.  One beautiful and fragrant variety to look for is the exceptional, hard-to-find, Cyclamen purpurascens ‘Green Ice’.

Holiday Cyclamen Care

With the right care, cyclamen make reliable, lovely house plants.

Fragrant or not, all florists’ cyclamens need care once they arrive home from the store. “Care” means removing the decorative foil around the pot and positioning it in a cool place with bright, indirect light. A surplus of direct sun will caused scorched leaves.

If you want to repot it after the holidays, use a quality medium like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with Extended Feed, and make sure the top of the root ball is level with the top of the soil in the new container. (Click here for an overview about how to repot house plants.) High humidity is a plus, so mist regularly or place the pot atop a saucer filled with pebbles. Add water to the saucer, but make sure the base of the pot is not submerged. Cyclamen appreciate moisture but detest wet feet. Water when the top of the soil is dry and aim the spout of your watering can around the edges of the pot. 

Post-Holiday Cyclamen Care

Even when not in bloom, cyclamen have decorative leaves.

With proper care, a cyclamen with some open flowers and a few buds should bloom for three or more weeks. Once the bloom period is over, gradually cut down on watering. It is not uncommon for plants to go into a natural dormancy in summer, which corresponds to a summer dry period to which they are acclimated. This is the point when most people throw a cyclamen out, thinking that it has died. Instead of doing that, you may want to try for a second cyclamen act. 

Move the pot to a cool, moderately dry location for a few weeks and then, attempt a resurrection by soaking the soil thoroughly and bringing the pot back to a spot with bright, indirect light. Wait until you see signs of sprouting before watering again, and resume a regular watering schedule. Feed with commercial houseplant fertilizer according to package directions. With a bit of luck, the cyclamen will begin its growth cycle anew.

If for some reason the cyclamen has actually died, skip the guilt and purchase another one.  The death was probably not your fault.  When thousands of plants are raised in a carefully controlled environment, and forced into bloom at a specific time, they may not have a second season’s worth of energy. Ironically, in the Victorian language of flowers, cyclamens, which seem so bright and cheerful during the winter, are symbolic of goodbyes. 

Cyclamen buds look like closed umbrellas.

Holly Olive and Its Virtues

Fortune’s Holly Olive is an appealing evergreen with highly fragrant spring flowers.

You might call osmanthus a great imposter, because shrubs and trees in the genus go by so many names.  At various times and places, osmanthus species have been tagged with common names like “false holly”, “tea olive”, “wild olive’ and even the scary-sounding “devilwood”. 

It takes some doing to get a handle on this group of ornamental evergreens.

Osmanthus species have nothing to do with Camellia sinensis, the species that provides black tea.  Nor are they part of the genus Ilex, home to hollies.  They really do not have any associations with the devil, though craftsmen find the hardwood devilish to work with.

The Latin name Osmanthus, is derived from the Greek words for fragrant and flower, so these common names probably fit it best.  Some of the common names reference olive, which provides another clue to their true nature.  Osmanthus is a card-carrying member of the olive family, Oleaceae, and its members are famous for the fragrance of their clusters of small, four-petaled flowers.

Experts reckon that there are about 15 species of holly olives, which are native to Asia and southern North America.  Some flower in spring, while others wait until fall, but all can thrive in home landscapes.  Smaller species may also be grown in large containers and overwinter inside in cold weather climates.

Autumn-Flowering Osmanthus

‘Goshiki’ is an especially pretty variegated holly olive.

In autumn, as the garden season starts to wind down, holly olive (Osmanthus heterophyllus, Zones 7-9) defies the seasonal trend and pumps out scores of small, white, four-petaled flowers.  Many of those flowers hide demurely under the foliage but make their presence known with a pervasive sweet scent.  Growing 8 to 10 feet tall and 7 to 9 feet wide, the species can be grown as a large, bushy shrub or standardized into tree form.  The leaves are dark green and spiny, like true holly, but close comparison reveals that holly olive leaves are opposite on the stems, while true holly leaves alternate.  Though the leafy branches can be used effectively in winter holiday arrangements and decorations, holly olive does not produce the bright red berries that characterize many true hollies. 

Many commercially available holly olive varieties bear green leaves, while others, like “Goshiki’ and ‘Kembu’ sport variegated leaves that are blotched or edged in cream.  Add light to the landscape with ‘Ogon’, which features bright, golden-green leaves.

Sweet olive has very fragrant flowers and more elongated, elliptical leaves.

 For something a little smaller and potentially more manageable in limited space, try sweet olive (Osmanthus decorus, Zones 6-9).  Native to areas around the Black Sea in Asia Minor, decorus grows only 6 to 8 feet tall, with tiny, white spring blossoms that perfume the air around the shrub.  The oblong foliage is spineless, glossy, and dark green. In fall, the shrubs produce small, purple-black fruits, a testament to the familial link between osmanthus and the rest of the olive family.

Good Fortune: Cross holly olive with fragrant olive and you get Fortune’s olive (Osmanthus x fortunei, Zones 7-10), which can grow 15 to 20 feet tall, with a rounded crown, but is easily pruned to fit smaller available spaces.  The hybrid has spiny, holly-like leaves and fragrant fall blooms.  One popular variety, ‘Fruitlandii’, is slightly more compact than its parent, with flowers that are creamy yellow instead of white.  ‘Variegatus’ offers green and white foliage, plus scented blooms.  Fortune’s olive offers better cold hardiness than some other osmanthus species.

Devilwood has deeply incised holly-like leaves.

Devilwood is a terrible name for (Osmanthus armatus, Zones 7-9), a lovely shrub native to China. Admittedly, the lustrous, holly-like leaves can be spiny on young plant but smooth out on mature specimens.   The characteristic white flowers appear in clusters, the better to spread their glorious scent in autumn. Female plants may also produce oval-shaped, dark purple fruits after the flowers drop. Devilwood is most often grown as a multi-branched shrub and can reach eight to 15 feet in height.  It is cold-hardy to at least Zone 7 and will tolerate more shade than many other osmanthus species.

Orange Supreme fragrant olive has an extra sweet spring fragrance and unsurpassed beauty.

In warm winter climates fragrant olive (Osmanthus fragrans, Zones 9-11), native to Japan and China, contributes strongly scented flowers to the spring garden, along with leathery oblong green leaves.  Maxing out at 10 to 15 feet tall and wide, it can be grown as a tree or shrub and pruned to keep the size under control.   Unlike holly olive, fragrant olive produces its white blooms in spring.  Like most other osmanthus, this spring charmer is relatively unfussy, tolerating clay soil and, once established, drought. The spectacular orange-flowered variety Osmanthus fragrans f. aurantiacus ‘Orange Supreme’ is one to seek out!

American wild olive is an underused native shrub. (Image by Homer Edward Price)

Osmanthus americanus (syn. Cartema americana, Zones 6-10), also known as American or wild olive is also sometimes referred to as devilwood.  The elongated leaves, which feature smooth rather than spiny edges are dark green and adorn shrubs that can top out at between 15 and 24 feet high.  As with other osmanthus, the fragrant flowers are white, blooming in mid-spring, followed by blue-purple fall fruits. Wild olive is quite cold-hardy.

Burkwood’s osmanthus (Osmanthus x burkwoodii, Zone 6) is relatively small (six to 10 feet tall and wide) hybrid with highly aromatic spring flowers.  Most often grown as a rounded shrub, the shiny, dark green leaves are toothed rather than spiny.  Introduced in England in the 1920’s, Burkwood’s osmathus has remained popular for its fragrant early flower clusters and is also reputedly deer resistant.

Planting Osmanthus

Osmanthus is easy to grow and tolerant of an array of conditions, but needs a good start in the garden.  Plant potted or balled and burlapped nursery specimens in soil amended with Fafard Premium Natural and Organic Compost.  Mulch thoroughly, but do not allow mulch to touch the plants’ main stems or trunks, and water regularly for the first few months while the roots get established.

Festive Garden Fruits and Berries of Fall

Beautyberries offer one of the most brilliant and memorable shows of fall and there are many species from which to choose.

Depending on where you live, October can be a time when the last of the late summer and early fall color is fading from the garden.  The asters are almost finished, the goldenrod is going, and most of the color comes from potted mums and Halloween pumpkins.

But your landscape does not have to succumb to drabness. There is an answer to the color dilemma—shrubs and trees with eye-catching fruits or berries.  Taking center stage with gem-like red, black, purple, or yellow fruit, these plants multi-task by beautifying the garden while providing food for birds and small animals.   The following species and varieties are among the best investments for the four-season landscape.

Passionate Purple Beautyberry

Beautyberries will remain on the shrubs after the leaves fall until they get snapped up by birds.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa ssp.) more than lives up to its name, with clusters of vivid purple berries hugging the stems, which also bear ovoid, slightly toothed green leaves.   A member of the Lamiaceae or mint family, deciduous beautyberry boasts bronze spring foliage, small pink summer flowers, and fall berries–all on graceful, arching stems.   There are several species of beautyberry available commercially.  Among the most popular is ‘Profusion’; a variety of Bodinier’s beautyberry (Callicarpa bodinieri), which is celebrated for its heavy crops of fall berries.  Hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 8,  ‘Profusions’ grows 4 to 6 feet tall and wide, perfect for use as a specimen plant, an anchor in a large garden bed, or en masse to form a noteworthy hedge. Other available species include native American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana),  which is slightly more heat-tolerant than other species and hardy in zones 6 through 10; the slightly smaller purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma), hardy in zones 5 through 8; and  Japanese beautyberry (Callicarpa japonica), hardy in the same USDA Hardiness Zones.  All will thrive in full sun to light shade and can withstand clay soil.  They should be pruned back in late winter for health and appearance’s sake.

A Non-Traditional American Cranberry

American cranberries simply glow against their red and purple changing foliage.

The universe of beautiful viburnums is large, but highbush cranberry, also known as cranberry viburnum or American cranberry (Viburnum opulus var. americanum), is one of the loveliest in autumn.  It is not a true cranberry but bears edible fall fruit in a brilliant shade of red.  As the name suggests, highbush cranberry is native to North America and grows large—8 to 12 feet tall and wide—but delivers a lot in return for that significant investment of garden space.  In spring the shrubs sport flat-topped flower clusters reminiscent of Queen Anne’s lace, followed by dark green leaves, with three lobes apiece and an appearance akin to maple foliage.  The leaves sometimes color up in fall before disappearing, but the crimson berries tend to outshine them. 

Highbush cranberry is hardy in zones 2 through 7,  performs well in full sun to light shade, and can survive cold winters.  The flowers are beloved by butterflies and the fruits are attractive to birds.  Humans can use them in much the same way as true cranberries—in jams, jellies, and confections.

Golden Crabapples

Golden Harvest crabapples literally glow on the branches after the leaves fall and birds love them.

All flowering crabapple trees (Malus spp.) are beautiful, and, at anywhere from 6 to 20 feet tall, depending on variety, compact enough for many home landscapes.  They flower in spring in a frothy burst of pink buds that open to pink or white blossoms, with single or double rows of petals.  Some never fruit, but many crown the fall season with small round apples in shades of pink to rosy red.  The much-loved Sargeant crabapple (Malus sargentii),  is a dwarf variety that can be grown as a large shrub or standardized as a small tree, is one of the red-fruited varieties. It is hardy in zones 4 through 7. 

Red is heartening, but yellow or gold-fruited crabapples are especially dramatic.  Cultivars like the rosy gold fruits of ‘Golden Harvest’, clear golden yellow fruits of ‘Golden Raindrops‘, and the larger, edible, golden crabapples of ‘Golden Hornet’, which is also a Royal Horticultural Society award winner. All are hardy to zones 4 through 8  and produce abundant, showy fruits that are beloved of birds and humans.

Crabapple fruits are not as persistent as some fall berries but are beautiful while they last.  Many varieties also feature leaves that color up in the fall, prolonging the brilliant show.

Flowering crabs are tolerant trees, able to flourish in clay soil and withstand drought, once established in sunny locations.  Prune to shape in late winter.

Brilliant Chokeberry

Brillant chokeberry has colorful fruits and its leaves turn from green to red in fall. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Chokeberry is an unattractive name for a very attractive, deciduous flowering and fruiting shrub.  Aronia melanocarpa, known as black chokeberry, is the most common chokeberry in commerce.  A member of the rose or Rosaceae family, black chokeberry is native to the eastern half of North America and is hardy in zones 3 through 8. 

In the spring, the shrub starts with small clusters of five-petaled white flowers, which lure bees and other pollinators.  These give way to glossy black fruits in the fall.  If the birds do not get them all, the fruits may persist after frost.  Though edible, they are sour but can be cooked and sweetened to make jellies, relishes, and other dishes.  Chokeberry fruits share the spotlight with the leaves, which turn red-purple in fall before dropping from the plants.  Black chokeberry is the smallest of the Aronia species at three to six feet tall and wide. 

Black chokeberry has edible fruits and brilliant orange-red fall leaf color.

Chokeberry lovers who crave red fruits can invest in Aronia arbutifolia or red chokeberry, which grows 6 to 10 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide and is hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 through 9.  A slightly more cold-hardy black chokeberry/red chokeberry hybrid, Aronia x prunifolia produces dark purple fruits on shrubs that grow 8 to twelve feet tall and 6 to 9 feet wide. It is hardy in USDA zones 4 through 7.

Chokeberries are suckering shrubs that can form thickets if left untended.  They crave consistent moisture and are happy in moist or even swampy spots, including pond or stream edges.

Giving Fruiting Trees and Shrubs a Good Start

Beautyberry, highbush cranberry, crabapple, and chokeberry are relatively unfussy plants but benefit from a good start.  Site in sunny locations and amend the soil at planting time with nutritious Fafard Garden Manure Blend.  Water regularly to establish root systems, and keep chokeberries irrigated during dry spells. (Click here for a full guide to properly siting and planting shrubs and trees.)

Garden-Path Fillers: Plants for Cracks and Crevices

Sedums (Sedum spurium shown), thyme, and even a little blue rug juniper act to fill and cover the crevices in this appealing rocky garden path.

Nature abhors bare ground and will happily (and quickly) cover even the smallest bare spaces with weeds.  Keeping those weeds at bay in the cracks and crevices between pavers, stepping stones, or along rock walls can be a perpetual battle. 

It doesn’t have to be that way.

There are plenty of tough, beautiful, neat spreading plants that are small enough to fit into cracks and crevices.  Some have appealing flowers and more than a few sport fragrant foliage. Leaf textures vary from fern-like to fleshy and succulent. 

Depending on the situation, the following plants will beautify those hard-to-fill spaces and end the battle of the crevice weeds.

Soft Greens: Alluring Faux Mosses

Sagina subulata remains pretty and green between these pavers and tolerates foot traffic.

Irish and Scottish mosses (varieties of Sagina subulata and Arenaria verna) are not true mosses at all, but diminutive members of the carnation or Caryophyllaceae family. Thriving in full sun to partial shade, the two moss-like species form mats of thin, creeping stems covered with soft, tiny leaves in green (most often in Irish moss) or golden-green (most often in Scotch moss). In spring, Sagina varieties are adorned with single white flowers, while Arenaria bear their blooms in clusters. Rising to a height of only about one inch tall, the plants tolerate light foot traffic and are generally hardy in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4-8.

Thyme for Fragrance

Thyme is a very effective evergreen stone crevice filler that bears spring flowers and season-long fragrance.

Some avid gardeners make entire lawns of fragrant thyme species and varieties, but the plants are also great crevice fillers. Many will do the job, but all like excellent drainage and full sunshine. Among the most popular are elfin thyme (Thymus serpyllum) and mother-of-thyme (Thymus praecox), which share other nicknames that include creeping thyme, wild thyme, and others. The European natives belong to the mint, or Lamiaceae family and are related to common culinary thyme (Thymus vulgaris) and are equally edible. Growing only about 1/4 inch tall and spreading up to one foot, each plant features scores of tiny, ovoid leaves, with the characteristic thyme fragrance. 

The flowers, appearing in June or July, are deep pink in Thymus serpylluum and somewhat lighter in Thymus praecox. Thriving in USDA Zones 4 or 5-8, the perennial plants will attract butterflies and pollinators, but not deer, and will withstand foot traffic. In mild climates, thymes are evergreen.

Creeping Speedwells

Turkish speedwell (Veronica liwanensis) becomes covered with violet-blue flowers in spring.

Though not real thyme, thyme-leaf speedwell (Veronica oltensis) shares thyme’s ground-covering nature. The tiny leaves of these snapdragon relatives are evergreen on plants that rise to only 1 inch in height.  Thyme-leaf speedwell’s crowning glory is the tiny blue flowers that cover the plants in spring. Blooming and spreading best in full sun and flourishing in zones 4-9, the plants can withstand low water conditions once they are established. Equally drought-tolerant Turkish speedwell (Veronica liwanensis) is another great solution for cracks between bricks or pavers. The characteristically tiny leaves are glossy green and the plants are quick to establish because the stems root as they travel.  Periwinkle-blue flowers appear in late spring on plants that grow 1 to 2 inches tall and are hardy in zones 3-9.

For something different and cheerful, little Veronica repens, or creeping veronica, is perfect. The foliage is dense and golden on plants that grow 1 to 2 inches tall. Creeping veronica is evergreen in southern gardens and thrives in zones 4-8.

Steppable Sedums

Creeping sedums of all types grow beautifully in crevices. Evergreen forms are most desirable for their year-long coverage.

Always in vogue, some succulent sedums also make excellent crevice-fillers. One terrific choice for larger cracks or spaces is Caucasian stonecrop (Sedum spurium), also known as two-row stonecrop, which grows to about 3 inches tall, with a spread of up to 18 inches. Its leaves are deciduous, but dense roots hold soil between cracks through winter. The fleshy leaves of the popular and somewhat less vigorous ‘Tricolor’ variety are green-tinged with pink, turning red later in the season. Tiny pink flowers add interest in late spring to early summer. The evergreen gray sedum (Sedum pachyclados) is similar in size and spread to Caucasian stonecrop, with miniature blue-green “hen and chick” type leaf rosettes that support pink flowers in mid to late summer. These sedums like relatively dry, well-drained soil as well as lots of sunshine and grow best in zones 4-9.

Other Great Creepers

New Zealand brass buttons looks ferny and spreads nicely between pavers or in gardens.

Creeping mazus (Mazus reptans) is another great perennial creeper, native to the Himalayas and hardy in USDA zones 5-8.  The narrow green leaves stay vibrant into the fall, but the tubular, blue-purple, and white flowers are what set the two-inch-tall grower apart. With its love of damp soil, creeping mazus is perfect for low or wet cracks or crevices 

The fancifully named New Zealand brass buttons (Leptinella squalida) is a creeper that features leaves that look like tiny ferns.  The “brass buttons” of the common name refer to the small yellow flowers that bloom in June or July, but the foliage plays the real starring role for this sun-loving species. ‘Platt’s Black’ is a striking variety with near-black leaves. Flourishing in USDA zones 4-10, New Zealand brass buttons spreads readily by underground rhizomes.

Low Maintenance for Low Growers

There are lots more creepers to consider for the garden, so ask your local garden center specialist for the best creepers for your area.

Once creepers and crevice fillers are established, they generally do not take much maintenance. If soil is lacking in the planting spaces, fill in with a quality product like Fafard Premium Topsoil. Water regularly until the plants are established. The best time to sheer back crack and crevice fillers is right after they bloom. At other times, trim to maintain size and shape. parameters.

10 Common Garden Flowers that Feed Birds

Coneflower seeds are a favorite of goldfinches.

Birds–chirping, whistling, and singing—are integral contributors to the daily symphony of garden sounds.  Their presence is also a sign of a healthy ecosystem.  Attract them by using the right combination of flowering plants and focusing on a succession of blooms and seeds. The end result will be a beautiful landscape and a smorgasbord for birds.

The majority of bird-friendly blooms need sunny space, though a few, like allium and black-eyed Susan, can flourish in light shade.  Some species will thrive in the leanest soil, while others prefer a growing medium enriched with organic material like Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. 

Zinnias, cosmos, marigolds and other prolific annuals are “cut and come again” flowers, producing fresh flowers over and over again after deadheading or cutting.  In fact, the biggest dilemma for bird and bloom-loving gardeners may be whether to enjoy cut flowers or let them set seeds for hungry birds.  When in doubt, plant enough for both uses and refrain from deadheading at the end of the gardening season.

The ten flowering plants below are among the best at providing beauty, ease of culture, and food for avian visitors. 

Spring Flowers for Birds

Golden groundsel has seeds that feed birds. Birds also eat the spring pollinators they attract.

Golden Groundsel (Packera aurea, Zones 3-9): The native golden-yellow flowers of golden groundsel are repellant to troublesome garden critters like deer and rabbits, but magnetic for pollinators and birds. Their golden-yellow clusters of daisies attract lots of pollinators (some of which birds eat) and brighten partially sunny to shaded beds and look great in woodland gardens. Flowering may start in mid-spring and continue to late spring. Leave the fluffy white seed heads for the birds to enjoy! Plants may spread, so give them space to move.

Many birds enjoy eating cornflower seeds.

Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus): Annual cornflower, sometimes known as ‘bachelor buttons”, is an old-fashioned annual that blooms from May through July.  The most common cornflower color is bright blue, but some varieties may also sport blue-purple, dark purple, white or pink flowers.  Gardeners with poor soil can succeed with these bird-friendly blooms because they prefer lean conditions.  Like other annuals, cornflowers will respond to cutting by producing more blooms.  From a bird’s perspective, the sooner the flowers go to seed the better, so make sure to let that happen.  The seed that the birds leave behind or drop will produce a new crop the following year. 

Summer Flowers for Birds

Cosmos attract insects that feed birds, and their seeds are also highly nutritious to many bird species.

Common Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus): Blooming from the beginning of summer through frost, this annual is among the most cheerful members of the daisy family or Asteraceae (formerly Compositae).  The longtime garden favorite bears familiar saucer-shaped flowers with white, pink, or rose petals surrounding golden centers.  Some varieties, like those in the Double Click series, feature double blooms.  The leaves are fern-like, accenting slender stems that may be anywhere from 1 to 4 feet tall.  Like bachelor buttons, cosmos favor lean soil and good drainage.  For color variation, try Cosmos sulphureus, with yellow, orange, or orange-red petals.  Birds will have no trouble finding these tall beauties, which rise between 2 and 6 feet.

Zinnia seeds are a nutritious bird favorite, so leave up those seedheads in fall!

Zinnias (Zinnia species and hybrids): The world of annual zinnias is wide, encompassing varieties in just about every color except for brown and blue. Heights range from ground-hugging (6 inches) to 4 feet tall.  Some of the most popular are tall zinnias (Zinnia elegans). All zinnias bear bright, daisy-like flowers, borne on somewhat coarse, hairy stems adorned with elongated green leaves.  Pinching back the stems of young zinnia plants encourages branching, making more flowers for you and the birds.  Zinnias will also bloom from early summer through frost but are sometimes prone to powdery mildew, a fungal disease.  Avoid crowding the plants, as good air circulation discourages powdery mildew.

Coneflowers: Once upon a time, if you wanted a perennial coneflower (Echinacea spp.), your options were limited to the lovely blooms of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Now perennial coneflowers have become the darlings of the horticultural world and choices abound.  Petal colors range from white, like the lovely ‘White Swan’, through a range of yellows, peach, pink, orange, and red, with bi-colors, like the fetching ‘Green Twister’ thrown in for good measure.  Many of the newer coneflowers are also fragrant, an added plus.  The one thing that they all have in common is large, cone-shaped centers filled with seeds.  Goldfinches, in particular, love them.

Marigold seeds are numerous and feed birds.

Marigolds: Annual marigolds (Tagetes spp.) are easy to grow and, tolerant of a range of conditions.  Tall types, usually varieties of Tagetes erecta or African marigold, may reach a height of up to 4 feet tall, with large flower heads of cream, yellow, or yellow-orange petals.  Blooming through the summer, both flowers and stems are aromatic and quite effective at repelling deer and other garden pests.  Low-growing French marigolds (Tagetes patula) have all the virtues of their taller relations, but top out at 6 to 12 inches—perfect for containers, small spaces, and border edgings.  When flowerheads are left intact for bird consumption, marigolds will self-seed readily.

Nutritious seeds are the main attraction of black-eyed-Susans, so keep your seedheads up in fall.

Black-Eyed Susans: An old-time favorite, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) flowers from mid to late summer.  Native to North America, the plants may be biennial or perennial, but all feature prominent seed-filled cones that attract birds, especially finches and chickadees.  One of the most popular garden “Susans” is Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’, a reliable perennial that is widely available in garden centers and features some of the largest flowers.  In general, black-eyed Susans can flourish in a wide variety of soil conditions and may even tolerate light shade. 

A scarlet tanager looks for insects on a sunflower head.

Annual Sunflowers:  It is hard not to love annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), which are held in high esteem by humans, mammals, and birds.  With broad, open flower faces and statuesque profiles, drought and heat-tolerant sunflowers, are also among the easiest plants to grow from seed.    Breeders have worked hard to expand the range of available sizes and colors.  Petals can be cream, shades of yellow, gold, orange, or russet, with bicolors popping up on the market every year.  All have seed-filled centers.  The big leaves may look ragged by summer’s end, but the flowerheads more than make up for that.  Container gardeners do not have to miss out on the flowers, or the birds, because shorter varieties like ‘Little Becky” topping out at about 3 feet.

Autumn Finale

Chickadees eat visiting insects and seeds of asters.

Asters: Perennial asters (Symphyotrichum spp., Eurybia spp. and Aster spp.) are no longer grouped under one species name, but they all feature daisy-like blooms in shades ranging from white through a host of pinks and roses to blues and blue-purples.  For visual impact, you can’t beat traditional New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).  Upright and leafy, they may grow up to 6 feet tall, but can also be kept shorter with judicious pruning earlier in the growing season.  Shorter asters, like the Woods series (‘Purple’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Pink’) have the same winsome flowers beloved of both people and birds but feature shorter stature (up to 18 inches). Butterflies relish the flowers’ nectar and birds feast on the autumn seeds.

Perennial sunflowers are essential late-bloomers for feeding birds.

Perennial Sunflowers: Drought-tolerant and versatile, sedums have really caught on with gardeners.  Whether you choose tall varieties like the much-loved ‘Autumn Joy’ or shorter ones, like ‘Wildfire’, sedums feature flowerheads of small, star-shaped blooms that draw butterflies.  Hanging around throughout fall, when other flowering plants have long since given up, sedums attract birds like finches with their plump seedheads.  If you can, avoid cutting back sedums until spring clean-up.

Many of these garden flowers naturally self-sow from year to year, so allow a few seedlings to provide more bird food and beauty to future gardens.

Homegrown Mints for Cooling Libations: Mojitos and Juleps

Mojitos have become a favorite tart, herbal summer drink!

Parched summer palates demand refreshments that are icy cold, wet, and flavorful.  For sophisticated adult palates, the mojito, a classic Cuban cocktail, and the julep, beloved in the American South, check all the right summer boxes. Mint, muddled or crushed with sugar prior to the addition of liquid ingredients, adds distinctive flavor notes to these drinks.

But, which mint is best for an authentic mojito or traditional julep?  The Mentha genus is large and full of popular varieties and hybrids.  That kind of abundance is a blessing for cooks and cocktail makers, but it can also be daunting.  The mints below are the best choices for these fabled libations.

The Mojito: A Taste of Havana

Fresh spearmint makes fabulous mojitos.

There are many origin stories associated with the mojito (click here for the traditional Havana-style recipe), but one thing is clear–it was popularized by novelist Ernest Hemingway, who first enjoyed it in the 1950s at a favorite Havana bar.  The cocktail’s fame spread, and by 2002, even super-spy James Bond tossed one back in the film Die Another Day.

A classic mojito embodies the flavor of the Caribbean in a fizzy mix of white rum, lime juice, mint, sugar, and club soda or sparkling water.  Ice cubes keep the drink cold. Nonalcoholic versions omit the rum.

Spearmint was the preferred mint for drinks in the early 20th century.

Until early in the 21st century, mixologists looking for mint to flavor mojitos often used spearmint (Mentha spicata), which has a familiar, piquant mint flavor.  Some drink makers also used peppermint (Mentha x piperita), but the mint flavor in peppermint leaves is much stronger and spicier than that of spearmint.

Around 2006, Cuban mint (Mentha x villosa), native to the island, began making appearances in the United States, and bartenders started using this “original” mojito mint in the rum drinks.  Since that time, Cuban mint has become more readily available, especially for those who are willing to grow their own.

Mint connoisseurs say that Cuban mint has a somewhat milder flavor than spearmint, along with citrus notes that marry well with the lime juice in the cocktail.

Jubilant Mint Juleps

Frosty mint juleps were originally served in silver cups but glass is also used these days.

The mint julep (click here for the traditional recipe from the Kentucky Derby) comes with its own collection of romantic and/or evocative stories, featuring a cast of larger-than-life characters ranging from Andrew Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway (a prodigious cocktail consumer).  The drink, traditionally served in a frosty silver or pewter cup, is a popular hot-weather tipple all over the South (and elsewhere) but is most often associated with the Kentucky Derby.  It has been the official cocktail of the Derby since 1983, and hundreds of thousands of them have been served to racegoers ever since.

Juleps were originally served in silver cups, like this antique one.

Juleps are traditionally made with bourbon, mint, sugar, and lots of shaved or crushed ice.  Julep aficionados might argue that quality bourbon is the most important component, but the mint also plays a defining role.  In many recipes, the instructions simply refer to “mint leaves”, without reference to specific types. Overall, the most common mint for juleps is spearmint, which harmonizes nicely with both the sugar and the bourbon. 

In a bow to tradition and the Derby, one variety of spearmint, with especially large leaves, was named ‘Kentucky Colonel’, however, any spearmint will work well in the drink.

Other Mint Options

Variegated pineapple mint is tasty and pretty.

Cocktail purists might frown, but you can enhance the flavors of mojitos and juleps with other mints, according to personal taste. Mojitos, with their lime flavor components, might include lime-scented peppermint (Mentha x piperata f. citrata ‘Lime’).  While a challenge to hallowed tradition might just be enough to scare the horses at Churchill Downs, julep lovers who like the combination of mint and chocolate can flavor their drinks with chocolate mint (Mentha x piperata ‘Chocolate’).  It is pretty and tastes sensational. The chocolate flavor is mild but discernible. The pretty variegated pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’) is another sweet variety to try for a fruity twist.

Grow Your Own Cocktail Mixers

Chocolate mint is my favorite for drinks!

Whether you are making mojitos or juleps, mint is extremely easy to grow.  Start from seed, young nursery plants, or cuttings from an established plant.  Cuttings from mint family members, including spearmint and Cuban mint, will root quickly in a glass of water and can then be transplanted to soil-filled containers. 

Mint’s vigor may also be its greatest liability in garden situations.  In rich, moist soil mint spreads rapidly and may take over increasingly large areas in beds and borders.  To keep the plants within bounds, grow them in containers filled with a good potting medium, like Fafard Natural and Organic Potting Mix.  You can sink the containers in the ground, or simply keep them near the kitchen door for those times when you want to make mojitos, juleps, or other minty specialties.

Always pot mint plants to keep them from taking over.

Harvest mint leaves regularly, as this keeps mints compact and full.  Aim to harvest before the plants flower, as flowering tends to make the mature leaves somewhat bitter.  If you can’t use those leaves right away, preserve them by air drying or freezing. Homegrown, preserved mint almost always tastes better than the dried product available on store shelves.

Mints die back to the ground in cold climates but return in spring and also self-seed readily.  You can also bring potted specimens indoors, and overwinter them on sunny windowsills.  Take cuttings from those plants in spring and root them, ensuring that you will have a supply of healthy young specimens for the growing season.

Growing Gooseberries and Currants

In Europe, people have long celebrated the unique flavors of gooseberries and their colorful relatives, currants.  Children drink Ribena and adults enjoy kir cocktails, both made with black currants.  At breakfast, many people spread red currant jelly on their toast.  Later in the day, they may enjoy a gooseberry fool, an old-fashioned dessert made with sweetened gooseberries, cream, and custard.

Fruitful European gooseberries (Ribes uva-crispa, USDA Hardiness Zones 4-8) and red and black currants (Ribes rubrum and R. nigrum, Zones 3-7) are less popular in America, though our country boasts some appealing native varieties, but times are changing.  In the midst of those changes, you can grow both delicious members of the Ribes family in your home garden and revel in a bountiful harvest of tart summer fruits for jams, jellies, pies, and other desserts.

White Pine Blister Rust Resistance

Ribes host WPBR, which quickly kills white pines.

One factor that is making these European berries more accessible to American gardeners is the prevalence of those that are resistant to the dreaded White Pine Blister Rust (WPBR). Currants, especially black currants, and gooseberries can be alternate host plants for the disease, and while it does not kill Ribes, it devastates American white pine trees (Pinus strobus), a valuable timber species. For this reason, gooseberries and currants have been banned for commercial and garden growing in some areas of the country where white pines are prevalent or grown for timber. Because these bans are still in place, only WPBR-resistant varieties will be highlighted in this article.


Gooseberries come in more colors than green.

Native to the British Isles, Europe, and western Asia, European gooseberry shrubs bear juicy, striated, round to ovoid fruits with a grape-like appearance.  Depending on the variety, those fruits may be red, purple yellow, white, or near black, but the most recognizable gooseberries are pale green. The fruits appear on the thorny (sometimes thornless) stems of rounded shrubs that can be anywhere from 2 to 5 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide. The small lobed leaves are green and sometimes have fall color. In early spring, small, five-petaled flowers appear, eventually giving way to late spring or early summer fruit.

Good WPBR-resistant varieties include the red-fruited hybrid ‘Captivator‘ and bright-green fruited ‘Pixwell‘. All gooseberries are high in Vitamin C and best eaten cooked with added sugar to balance their tartness.

Gooseberries are attractive shrubs with small, lobed leaves.

Gooseberries have been cultivated in their native regions for centuries and during that time vigorous varieties sometimes escaped from gardens to mingle with wild gooseberries in hedgerows and other untended areas. Wild birds enjoy the fruits as much as we do and spread their seeds. Here in North America, European gooseberries probably arrived with some of the first colonists, who planted them for a taste of home.  (There are some edible American Ribes species, but they never gained culinary popularity.)

The small white or pinkish flowers of gooseberries are pollinated by bees.

Gooseberries grow best in light shade to full sun in well-drained, loamy soil. We recommend amending poor garden soils with Fafard Garden Compost Blend before planting these berries. Many commercially available varieties are self-fertile, meaning that there is no need to grow a second gooseberry bush to ensure pollination by bees. Young fruit tends to be tart, but the berries sweeten up when left longer on the shrubs. Since local birds and wildlife may also enjoy the taste of your gooseberries, it may be a good idea to invest in some protective netting to deter them as the fruit ripens.

Annual or semi-annual pruning to eliminate weak or dead stems will help keep both gooseberries and currants healthy and productive.


Black currants are very dark and high in vitamin C and healthful anthocyanins.

Red currants (Ribes rubrum) and black currants (Ribes nigrum) are native to northern parts of Europe, Asia, and North America, and were known and used here by Native Americans. Colonists also brought favorite varieties from their home countries, and bushes were first offered for sale in a commercial nursery in 1770.  By the late 19th century, currants were produced commercially as well as in-home gardens.

Growing on shrubs that reach 3 to 5 feet in height and width, currants are distinguishable from gooseberries by their thornless canes and smaller, rounder fruits that are produced in colorful clusters that dangle. The green, lobed leaves are much like those of gooseberries. Currants are tart, sweet, and can be eaten fresh or in desserts and jellies.

Though ripening times may vary a bit depending on variety, most currants bear fruit in early summer. While many red and black currant varieties yield abundant harvests, it takes time for currants to become established. Expect fruit after about three years.

White currants are colorless varieties of red currants.

Though the Latin name, Ribes rubrum, refers to red fruit, some red currant varieties, including the WPBR-resistant ‘Imperial White’, bear white fruit.  Pink currants, like ‘Pink Champagne’ (not WPBR-resistant) result from crosses between red and white varieties. Traditionalists can choose vigorous classic red-berried plants, such as the WPBR-resistant ‘Red Lake‘.

Ribes nigrum shrubs produce black fruits.  We recommend the Scottish ‘Ben Sarek‘, which is resistant to the White Pine Blister Rust disease. ‘Consort‘ and ‘Titania‘ are also resistant, according to Ohio State University. One for beauty as well as fruit is ‘Crandall’, a highly ornamental black currant variety that bears fragrant spring flowers and has brilliant red fall leaves.

Cultural requirements for currants are similar to those for gooseberries.  Currants are also self-fertile, but if you are growing multiple shrubs of either currants or gooseberries, space them 3 feet apart.

The plants are not always tolerant of hot summers.  Gardeners in areas with high summer temperatures should plant the shrubs in light shade and keep them well watered in hot weather.


Jostaberries offer the best of both currants and gooseberries.

For an intriguing combination of gooseberry and currant, grow jostaberry (Ribes x nidigrolaria), a hybrid of gooseberry and black currant varieties.  The shrubs have the thornless nature of currants, with large, near-black fruit combining flavor notes from both parent species.  Shrub size and cultural requirements are similar to those of currants and gooseberries.

Be Aware of Federal and State Bans

The severity of White Pine Blister Rust (WPBR), which arrived in the United States in the 1890s, means that non-resistant currants and gooseberries are banned in some areas. In 1911, the spread of WPBR resulted in a Federal government ban on the importation and cultivation of currants and gooseberries. In 1966, the Federal quarantine was lifted, but many states continued to restrict the cultivation of the fruits.  A number of states have now also eased restrictions, while breeders have developed disease-resistant cultivars. 

Before you invest in gooseberries or currants, check with your local cooperative extension service or state department of agriculture about any restrictions in your state or region.  Red currants and gooseberries are generally less restricted than black currants.