A Gardening Journal

Must Have: Oriental Spicebush in Bloom

Lindera angustifolia Arnold hand 050615 640

 

When I introduced oriental spicebush back in March, New England was deep in the grips of Winter but the shrub's striking tan Fall foliage was still in perfect condition. By early May, the flowers had come out—and the striking tan Fall foliage was still in perfect condition.

 

Now that Spring weather is at last reliable, the small BB-like buds on display all Winter have opened into a surprisingly large ruff of green and yellow flowers. At the center of the display, the first of the season's new leaves are still tightly furled.

 

Lindera angustifolia Arnold blossoms leaves hand closeup 050615 640

 

The brown scales that had protected the flower buds in Winter are retained, and provide just the right amount of subtle brown echo to the Fall leaves.

 

Lindera angustifolia Arnold blossoms leaves hand closest 050615 640 

 

Such overwintering Fall foliage is known as marcescent. Fagus, Quercus, Parrotia, Hamamelis, and Carpinus are more well-known trees and shrubs with marcescent foliage; if these plants are skillfully handled, such foliage can be a welcome seasonal highlight. As here, with Lindera angustifolia, marcescent foliage can be beautifully translucent, creating a warm glow that's a show itself.

 

Lindera angustifolia Arnold up into the canopy 050615 640

 

Below are some of the branches of the shrub that have shed their marcescent foliage almost entirely. The flowers are exciting even on their own but, overall, the display would be even stronger with more consistency in the foliage. Many of the branches with the most marcescent foliage are higher up and, because this shrub is in a public collection (Arnold Arboretum), could the loss of lower foliage be, at least in part, from the curious touches of visitors? The foliage really is that showy, especially in contrast to surrounding shrubs and trees that have been leafless since October. After I've had first-hand experience with this species, I'll know better whether there are handling options that reliably lead either to retention of marcescent foliage right through flowering, or reliable loss of it before flowering. 

 

Lindera angustifolia Arnold bossoms w o leaves close up 050615 640 

 

There are advantages to maximizing such retention. Besides the enhancement of the striking look of the eerily-durable tan leaves themselves, if a shrub retained them top to bottom, this species would be another option for effective screening Winter and Summer. The timing and extent of pruning is likely to be the key to such foliar retention—and would also be the way to shape a line of this otherwise-large shrub into a unique and comparatively compact hedge.

 

Pruning is also the way to enjoy these branches indoors, in a vase. But at least outside, on the hoof as it were, the marcescent foliage is easily dislodged through handling the stems this late in its annual season. To bring branches indoors without leaving their marcescent leaves on the ground or the floor, you'd need to prune with zen-like concentration and tai-chi slowness. Would the foliage be more durable on branches that were formed as a result of the same strategic pruning that shapes Lindera angustifolia into a hedge or a screen? What if the branches were harvested weeks before the flowers emerged, arranged, and then forced into bloom: Would the foliage remain in place better? An enormous array of leafy flowering branches would be stunning, and a triumph to all of us who may have attempted to harvest branches in full bloom. Almost any number of tricks and tactics could be worth it.

 

 

I'm looking forward to profiling this sui generis shrub after it's performing well in my own gardens. Meanwhile, here's how engaging this shrub is even in the dead of Winter—and a brutal one at that—at the Arnold Arboretum.

 
 
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