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Plant Profiles

The Best Season Ever: Gold Boxleaf Honeysuckle

Lonicera-nitida-Baggesens-Gold-foliage-with-hand-092013-640 

 

Evergreen shrubs with small foliage seem to go with everything. By comparison, nearby medium-sized leaves look surprisingly impressive, and truly large ones titanic. And when the tiny foliage is colorful and held in orderly sprays? The plant is no longer horticulture's little black dress: It's one of its stars.

 

Leaves of Lonicera nitida are exceptionally small—half the size or smaller of their "boxleaf" namesake. And they are borne in flat pairs, forming a strikingly orderly rank on either side of each narrow stem. Leaves of the 'Baggesen's Gold' cultivar are bright gold, especially when young. (In cooler-Summer climates the shrub can be grown in full sun, and then new foliage can be nearly white.)

 

Lonicera-nitida-Baggesens-Gold-spray-overall-092013-640

 

With such a graceful habit, and coloring that is eye-catching but easy to work with, this shrub is a favorite world wide. 

 

Here's how to grow this exceptionally attractive and versatile shrub:

 

Latin Name

Lonicera nitida 'Baggesen's Gold'

Common Name

Golden boxleaf honeysuckle

Family

Caprifoliaceae, the Honeysuckle family.

What kind of plant is it?

Broad-leaved evergreen shrub that can become deciduous at the cold end of its hardiness range.

Hardiness

Zones 7a - 9b.

Habit

Gracefully mounding, with arching branches from which emerge near-horizontal fans of secondary twigs ranked neatly on either side.

Rate of Growth

Fast in Zones 7b and warmer; noticeably slower in Zone 7a.

Size in ten years

In Zone 7a, a mound three feet tall and wide only after many years; in Zone 8 and warmer, a mound that large in just a few years, with an expected maturity of five feet tall and wide. Monsters of up to ten feet tall and wide are reported in cool-Summer maritime climates such as that of, say, Ireland.

Texture

When growing free-range, 'Baggesen's Gold' is graceful and airy, with arching twiggy stems ranked beautifully with tiny chartreuse-to-yellow leaves. The layer-after-layer branch structure is somewhat similar to that of herringbone cotoneaster, Cotoneaster horizontalis, although the Cotoneaster stems are notably laxer and those of 'Baggesen's Gold' maintain their mounding height.

 

Where solidly hardy, Lonicera nitida can be pruned into a flawless densely-surfaced formal hedge, providing a texture that is, at least for a while right after a cut, as smooth and uniform as anything achievable with yew or box. But box honeysuckle's quick growth in response to pruning makes necessary multiple cuts a season. This isn't advisable where the shrub isn't solidly hardy, because new growth from a Summer cut probably won't have time to harden up before Winter. Architecturally-pruned hedges of Lonicera nitida are realistic, then, only in Zones 7b and warmer. In Zone 7a and 6, this shrub usually incurs enough Winter damage that it can't be maintained at the size or quantity needed for a mass planting, let alone one such as hedge, which depends on many individuals' being able to form a tall and narrow shape that is, inherently, cruelly exposed to wind. A free-range 'Baggesen's Gold' is just one of several options in warmer climates; in colder ones, it's the only option.

Grown for

its foliage: Two ranks of tiny egg-shaped leaves are arrayed flatly and on opposite sides of each stem. The arrangement is pleasing in itself; when the foliage is golden, as in 'Baggesen's Gold' and some other forms introduced in "Variants," below, the interest is even greater. No other broadleaved evergreen, tender or hardy, combines such small foliage with bright coloring, potential for use as almost anything from a large-scale groundcover to a feathery specimen to a formal hedge, and resistance to diseases or pests. Near-competitors include Lonicera pileata (whose leaves are at least twice as large, and are available only in green), 

Cotoneaster horizontalis and linearifolius species and cultivars (none of which have yellow foliage, and all of which can be killed by fireblight), and Buxus sempervirens (susceptible to box blight, and with an entirely different habit, one of density and roundness). Coprosma 'Beatson's Gold' seems the rare equal to 'Baggesen's Gold' in terms of small and colorful evergreen foliage, but it is even less hardy, and its habit is stiff and dense like that of Ilex crenata

 

The intensity of the coloring varies with the climate and the site. In cool-Summer maritime climates, the foliage holds its bright yellow color year-round, giving 'Baggesen's Gold' permanent "Yup, I'm really yellow, so get used to it!" prominence. Over the course of a hotter Summer, the foliage mellows (or, depending on your priorities, dulls) nearly to light green. In any climate, full sun can stimulate production of foliage that emerges paler yellow, sometimes nearly platinum blond. In more and more shade, the color deepens to chartreuse.  

 

its habit: When allowed to grow free-range, stems arch up, out, and down with special grace, displaying the innumerable upward-facing leaves to perfection. Side stems are plentiful and spontaneously formed, giving even young branches a frond-like combination of fullness and airy delicacy. That said, the newly-emerging stems that arise as a result of pruning can be particularly fast-growing and free of side branches. Their emergence can "shag" a newly-trimmed hedge with impressive speed. As with privet, hedges of Lonicera nitida require several cuts a year to maintain their neat profile and dense surface.

 

its flexibility: Lonicera nitida has sui generis fullness that, when the shrub is left to grow naturally, produces a look of feathery sophistication. But when clipped, it can be grown to dense architectural perfection rivaling anything that can be achieved with box or yew. Or it can be grown more casually, with occasional tidy-up tipping back and, only every couple of growing seasons, a more radical pruning to regain a smaller size.

 

its resistance to browsers: Lonicera nitida is usually untouched, so is an important additional to the repertoire of broadleaved evergreens that achieve resistance to browsers without the use of sharp leaf spines (American holly or hardy pineapple, say), or stems with such lengthy thorns that access to the foliage can be dangerous (such as hardy orange, five-leaf aralia, and pyracantha). Other broadleaved evergreen shrubs whose browser resistance is due to bad-tasting or poisonous foliage, not thorns or prickles, include box, leucothoe, pieris, and cherry laurel.

 

its resistance to salt: As long as the shrub is solidly hardy at the site, both in terms of wind-chill from Winter wind and from severe cold itself, Lonicera nitida will also tolerate salt spray, whether from salt water or from salted roads whose accumulated Winter precipitation might be plowed onto roadside plantings or splashed onto them by faster-moving vehicles.

Flowering season

Spring: Although the small white flowers are reported as being fragrant, lack of fragrance is also reported. Lonicera nitida is grown for its foliage, flexibility, and habit, not its flowers. 

Color combinations

Any plant with yellow foliage is, by definition, an easy mixer among neighbors that are either referencing yellow directly (by highlighting anything from butter-and-cream to yolk), in opposition (through contrasting shades of burgundy or blue), or through neutrality (via white or green). Perhaps because of its delicate foliage and (if allowed to grow free-range) shrub-that's-also-a-fern gestalt, 'Baggesen's Gold' can also harmonize with everything else. Acid orange? Bubble-gum pink? Vermillion swirled with raspberry? Bring 'em on! 

Plant partners

So many possibilities! Because almost any color can associate with 'Baggesen's Gold', your first thoughts can be about foliage size and texture, instead. Larger foliage, from whatever source, is always foolproof. Of course, because the leaves of Lonicera nitida are so small, almost any other leaves are large by comparison. Because 'Baggesen's Gold' is usually happiest in part shade, only a few of the countless likely candidates include these dappled-shade favorites: Ajuga, Alocasia, Arum, Acanthus, Aucuba, Convallaria, Deinanthe, Diphylleia, Edgeworthia, Glaucidium, Hedychium, Hosta, Indocalamus, Farfugium, Ligularia, Leucosceptrum, PetasitesPodophyllum, Rhododendron, Rhapidophyllum, Rubus, and Xanthorhiza.

 

Long and narrow foliage is a winner also. Many forms of Acorus, Carex, and Hakonechloa thrive in the dappled shade preferred by 'Baggesen's Gold'. 

 

If I lived in a milder climate with cool Summers, I'd have a collection of Phormium, and next to more than one of the larger forms, a huge free-range 'Baggesen's Gold'. The intimate contrast of the honeysuckle's arching and near-ferny foliage with the enormous and colorful sword leaves of the New Zealand flax seems like one of horticulture's ultimate pairings. And because the Lonicera will be easy in any climate mild enough for the Phormium, both will have evergreen presence, too.

Where to use it in your garden

There are a number of other small-foliaged plants whose leaves are yellow, and that can be clipped into tight hedges; look in the Buxus,

Cryptomeria, EuonymusIlex, and Taxus genera. (Subtropical gardeners can also choose among yellow or yellow-variegated forms of Coprosma,

Helichrysum, and Pittosporum.) In any climate, there's not even a distant competitor in habit or texture for the yellow-foliaged feathery mounding look of 'Baggesen's Gold'. So if that's how you choose to grow the shrub, place it front-and-center.

 

In Zone 7 and colder, you'll need to site first to maximize Winter hardiness, and only second to capitalize on the shrub's aesthetics. Good Winter drainage is essential for hardiness, so plant on a slope if possible. See both "How to Handle It" boxes for more suggestions.

Culture

Soil that is well-drained and even dry in the Winter is the key to maximal Winter hardiness in Zone 7 and colder, but the shrub needs reasonable moisture from Spring through Fall. Full sun only in climates with cool Summers, otherwise part shade.  

How to handle it

Plant in Spring, ensuring enough water for establishment.

 

In climate zones 8 and 9, the shrub is so tolerant and vigorous that culture is more a matter of either siting where the darned thing can grow just as big as it wants, or pruning several times a year to limit size. Growth becomes so dense in response to pruning that, at least theoretically, architectural hedges and even topiary can be formed. But the frequency of maintenance pruning can be daunting. One blogger from Ireland noticed many aban-doned houses in his youth that also had perimeter hedges of Lonicera nitida—and concluded that inability to keep up with the pruning was probable cause for the abandonment. 

 

In Zone 7, 'Baggesen's Gold' is probably most reliable when growing free-range; in Zone 6, it is definitely possible only as a free-range specimen. See the reasons why in "Textures," above.

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

In Zones 8 and 9, 'Baggesen's Gold' can be grown as a hedge, albeit one that needs frequent pruning. Because hardiness isn't an issue, prune whenever necessary; make peace with the reality that pruning will probably be needed each season one or two times more than you'd prefer. 

 

In Zone 7 into 6, the goal is simpler: to help the shrub survive. The shrub might drop its leaves for the Winter; don't prune in Spring until new foliage has emerged, so that it's clear that you're only removing dead tips. The shrub is slower and smaller than in Zones 8 and 9, and you'll probably want to preserve every inch. If possible, don't prune other than during this mid-Spring clean up, so that you don't encourage late-season growth that would likely not be hardy.

 

It would be awkward, unsightly, and probably unsuccessful to attempt to protect this arching and thin-stemmed shrub from Winter weather by burying it in loose mulch (from oak leaves, say), or by erecting a wind-baffle of snow fence or burlap around and over it. And the shrub isn't that quick-growing (especially at the cold end of its hardiness range) that it could just be cut back to nubs in Fall and buried in mulch, to resprout lustily come Spring. (Ah, if only the commitment to unstoppable arching new growth of Lespedeza thunbergii could be bred into Lonicera nitida!)

 

Instead, provide protection by way of careful siting. If possible, plant on a slope, the steeper the better: Not only does surface water drain away quickly, but so does cold air, which is denser than warmer air. Soil that is unusually dry in the Winter can also make the difference; consider planting in soil that is poorer at moisture retention, even though, yes, this means that much more watering Spring to Fall. If your site only offers a location that is fairly flat, it might be a help to plant the bush on a broad but gentle mound so that, late in Fall, you can slide pieces of heavy cardboard under the canopy of branches and right to the center of the clump. They could prevent most of Winter's precipitation from reaching the soil.

 

This shrub thrives in part-shade, anyway, so it's worth experimenting to see if a site that Winter's lower sun casts into full shade is beneficial for foliage retention as well as overall hardiness. Skimmia is a classic north-wall plant for the same reason; could 'Baggesen's Gold' be sited somewhat farther out from that same wall, such that more direct sun reached the shrub in Spring and Summer but, still, none in Fall and Winter?

 

Bulky companion plants can help provide shelter, too. I'm establishing 'Baggesen's Gold' beneath the lower limbs of a Magnolia grandiflora that I'm espaliering up the south wall of my house. The house itself blocks wind from the north, tall yew hedges block it from the east and west, and the thick foliage and profuse branches of the magnolia muffle gusts that descend from above—while also providing additional shade during the Summer. So far, so good.   

Quirks and special cases

Lonicera nitida was introduced from its native China to western horticulture twice, in 1908 and 1939. Only plants descended from the 1939 form are known to flower. 'Baggesen's Gold' flowers, although not eagerly in all locations, so it is probably also from the 1939 introduction.

Downsides

If only it were hardier—as well as more heat-tolerant. Lonicera nitida is almost too easy and versatile in climates whose Winter mildness is following by Summer mildness, such as the cool maritime climate of Great Britain or the Pacific Northwest. In London, Zone 9 is characterized by Summer temperatures that are rarely in the eighties Fahrenheit, and Winters where freezes (let alone snows) are few and brief, with tempera-tures down to low twenties only rarely. In eastern North America, Zone 9 means Tampa, Florida, where Summer temperatures in the nineties—even at night—are the norm. But where Summer weather is comparatively cool and, therefore, the foliage color remains bright, the Winter weather will usually be fatally cold. The shrub would be a fantastic container annual or Summered-outside specimen in Maine—the state is barely Zone 6 at the very warmest—but, if planted directly in the garden there, wouldn't be likely to survive even to Christmas. When attempting establishment in eastern North America, then, your chances are probably best from North Carolina to Cape Cod. Eastern Long Island might tie with Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket as the nearest-to-ideal locations. 

 

Where hardiness isn't a concern, Lonicera nitida can grow quickly; hedges usually need several clippings a year to keep a clean profile. Even so, long twigs of new growth can emerge all too soon after a trim. (This report from Ireland suggests that even three or four trims a Summer isn't sufficient.) See the caution in the "Texture" box, above. 

Variants

Many: 'Twiggy' is a more-compact offspring of 'Baggesen's Gold, maturing to just two to three feet tall. Leaves of 'Lemon Beauty' are thickly bordered with yellow, leaving just a narrow splotch of green at the center. New growth of 'Red Tips' isn't red at all. It's wine-rosey-pink, leaves and stems both. The more you prune, the more colorful new twigs and foliage is on display. This form would be a natural for obsessively-trimmed hedges, which would develop a nearly solid surface layer of color.

 

Foliage of 'Edmee Gold' is gold and the cultivar is listed as preferring part shade. 'Ophelie' is a mutation of 'Edmee Gold' that holds its gold color without scorching, even in full sun. Leaves of 'Silver Beauty' are slate-green with a delicate white edge. (Lonicera yunnanensis 'Pat's Variegated' is reported both as resembling 'Silver Beauty' and being a bit hardier; you can't prove this by me.) Leaves of 'Maygreen' are a deeper solid green.

 

None of these Lonicera nitida cultivars is reliably hardy in Zone 6 unless ideal circumstances and handling are implemented. Even then, a severe Winter can bring plenty of suspense. See "How to handle it: Another option—or two!" for suggestions.

 

Where ideal siting and handling can't be had, it's safer to plant Lonicera pileata, which is fully hardy throughout Zone 6. It doesn't have colorfully-foliaged forms, but has a similar mounding spreading habit and look. It usually doesn't grow taller than two feet, but can spread to eight feet or wider. 'Moss Green' is reported as somewhat more compact and lower, if just as wide.

Availability

On-line. Where solidly hardy, perhaps then at nurseries.

Propagation

By cuttings and by layering. Lonicera nitida stems take root all by themselves where they touch ground, so propagation is often just a matter of severing self-layered stems from the mother plant in early Spring, digging up the rooted sections, and planting them where desired. Remember that the shrub had layered all by itself, so its stems are comfortable with touching the ground: Anchor these young transplants easily by planting them deep enough that some of the stems above the portion that rooted are buried an inch or two.

Native habitat

Lonicera nitida is native to China. Sometime after World War II, Niels Baggesen discovered a single gold-leaved branch growing on one of his stock bushes of Lonicera nitida at his nursery in Kent, England. All 'Baggesen's Gold' plants are descended from it. Given the shrub's worldwide popularity from the 1970s to the present, it's puzzling that 'Baggesen's Gold' wasn't given an RHS Award of Merit until 1993. Baggesen's sons are John and Harald, and they probably joined their father in his nursery business sometime before 1967—leading, perhaps, to the widespread but erroneous credit for the 1967 introduction of this cultivar by "J.H. Baggesen." See here for further information on Niels Baggesen.

 
 
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