A Gardening Journal

Gold-leaved Pheasant Berry

Leycesteria formosa has always been a bit of a taunt for we gardeners where it isn't reliably hardy. In winter, the green stems are supposed to be leafless, but bamboo-like. In September and October, graceful pendulous racemes of white flowers emerge from prominent burgundy bracts—and are succeeded in almost too cooperative haste by round fruits the color, shine, and size of chocolate-covered raisins.

 

A cultivar whose new foliage was butter yellow has emerged, making the taunt too strong by I simply had to grow this shrub, and Golden Lanterns was the chosen form. The picture below hints at many of the plant's charms.

 

Leycesteria formosa Golden Lanterns flowers fingers 101016 640

 

In late summer, white flowers emerge from striking burgundy bracts, and dangle in whorls down pendulous racemes. Even as the newest rung of flowers is fresh, those in rungs above it have already matured to shiny chocolate-purple fruits. They are reported as being only mildy palatable to humans, but wildlife adore them.

 

Leycesteria formosa Golden Lanterns foliage flowers closer 101016

 

The colorful leaves of Leycesteria formosa 'Golden Lanterns' inform its name. The newest are butter yellow, and mature to chartreuse. In the picture below, serrated green leaves of an unnamed pendulous form of dwarf elm, Ulmus pumila, show just how aureated the foliage of Golden Lanterns is. Newest and brightest leaves are in the foreground, but even the mature foliage showing in the background is significantly golden compared to that of the elm.

 

Leycesteria formosa Golden Lanterns Ulmus pumila Dwarf Weeper 101016 640

 

Leycesteria is reported as being very flexible about the amount of sun it receives, and is described as tolerating normal soil, wet soil and, surprisingly, drought. These reports are heavily weighted to the British Isles, where the degrees of heat and drought pale before those of even a normal summer in eastern North America. To ensure that my containered Golden Lanterns received only the partial sun that is most frequently recommended here, I placed its container beneath a metal stand upon which the potted weeping elm was set.

 

Leycesteria is hardy only with planning and luck here in Zone 6—but certainly not in a container, so I moved my Golden Lanterns into the greenhouse for the winter. I'll revisit this shrub seasonally so that the annual cycle of its performance receives the detailed viewing it deserves.

 

 

Here's how to grow Leycesteria formosa 'Golden Lanterns':

 

 

Latin Name

Leycesteria formosa 'Golden Lanterns'

Common Name

Gold-leaved pheasant berry. The species is also known as pheasant eye, Himalayan honeysuckle, and false nutmeg.

Family

Caprifoliaceae, the Honeysuckle family.

What kind of plant is it?

Semi-hardy deciduous shrub that can behave like a perennial at the cold end of its hardiness range.

Hardiness

Zones 7 to 10. Zone 6 is sometimes indicated but, in my experience, this shrub succeeds there only in very specific circumstances and with diligent handling. See the second "How to handle it" box, below.

Habit

Numerous hollow green stems arise directly from the shrub's below-ground base. The straight species of Leycesteria bears passing similarity to the foliage, stems, look, and habit (although not the flowers) of the much hardier (and unrelated) Spring-flowering shrub Kerria japonica. Even under ideally mild conditions where winter dieback isn't a problem—Zone 8 and warmer—a given Leycesteria stem's lifespan is only about three years.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

Bushes are much larger in milder climates. Below Zone 8, stems are likely to be killed to the ground each winter, limiting overall size to two or three feet. Below Zone 7, winter survival is usually the result of careful siting and handling (see the second "How to handle it" box, below), and resprouting in spring can be delayed and somewhat less vigorous. There, overall height might not exceed eighteen to twenty-four inches.

 

In Zones 8 and 9, stems are likely to escape winter damage and, so, can continue to grow year by year during their roughly three-year lifespans. In Zone 10, winter damage won't be a problem at all. In such mild climates, free-range Leycesteria can become six to eight feet high and wide. Even so, the overall look of the shrub as well as its annual cycle of flowering and fruiting will be improved by severe pruning. See "How to handle it," below.

Texture

Full without being dense. Perhaps thanks to the pendulous flower clusters, which need a certain amount of free space in which to dangle if they are to be visible and accessible to pollinators, including hummingbirds, the foliage isn't arrayed so closely that all the intervening lengths of stem are hidden. The shrub displays a pleasing proportion of open space, visible stem, foliage, and dangling flower clusters.

Grown for

its foliage: the youngest leaves are yellow, maturing to a chartreuse that is still clearly not just plain green. Even if it didn't flower, Golden Lanterns would still be highly garden-worthy as a foliage plant. With increasing amounts of sun, the newest leaves can be overlaid with burgundy and apricot, which is particularly helpful in creating a link with the flowers' burgundy bracts and fruit. Don't expect still more fireworks for fall: in my experience, Leycesteria leaves turn brown and that's it.

 

its stems' graceful habit: as is typical for the species, new stems arise from ground level, extending upward and outward with an inherent grace that's enhanced further by the pairs of leaves, which angle gently downward and to the front. In climates with only mildly frosty winters, there's just enough chill to cause leaf shed in the fall, but not enough cold to turn the stems' then-fully-revealed green bark to brown. In such favored circumstances, the bush resembles an inverted green shaving brush all winter.

 

its showy white flowers, which are backed by showy burgundy bracts, and are held in whorls on short pendulous racemes.

 

its showy fruits: the flowers mature to shiny burgundy fruits the size of plump chocolate-covered raisins. They are favorites with wildlife; humans report that they taste, variously, bitter or faintly of caramel. The oldest flowers in a raceme are at its base but, because the raceme is pendulous, will be at the top. They will have matured to fruits while new flowers are still emerging at the raceme's tip (which is at the bottom). A bush that is flowering and fruiting heavily is spectacular, but even if only occasional racemes are produced, each is still striking.

 

its fast growth and late-season bloom, which make Leycesteria an asset in containers or the garden.

Flowering season

Late Summer into Fall: here in southern New England, the start of flowering is in early September.

Color combinations

What with the differing shades of the foliage (bright yellow and chartreuse that can become overlaid with burgundy and apricot) and the racemes (bright white flowers, burgundy bracts, and chocolate-colored berries), Golden Lanterns already displays all the colors it gracefully can. Even the pure white of the flowers, adorable as they are, nearly makes them a distraction amid the already-substantive interaction of yellow, burgundy, apricot, and chartreuse carried on by the foliage, bracts, and fruits. Neighboring plants should be restrained to just those colors, providing further interest only with contrasts in form, habit, scale, and texture. See "Partner plants," below.

Partner plants

Because the color scheme of Golden Lanterns is complete within itself, partner plants should supply only shades of neutral green, yellow, chartreuse, chocolate, burgundy, apricot, and white. That still leaves quite a range, especially because, as long as it receives sufficient moisture when growing terrestrially, Leycesteria can thrive in full sun as well as part shade—and also in waterside settings at all exposures.

 

Although the straight species can be in the background, Golden Lanterns will normally be experienced as a specimen thanks to its bright foliage and unusual late-season flowers. So partner plants for in-ground plantings are most likely to be either background or foreground. Ferns or grasses are winners because of their strong textural contrast; avoid cultivars whose foliage includes yellow, which would tend to compete with that of Golden Lanterns. Would the coppery new fronds of Dryopteris erythrosora 'Brilliance' call out apricot tones in the new foliage of Leycesteria? Perhaps—especially if both plants were growing in full sun. Variegation in white would be a boon, in that it beefs up the presence of the dainty white Leycesteria flowers; look amid white-variegated cultivars of Hakonechloa and Carex in particular. 

 

If you can supply rich soil that stays moist all summer, race to plant the deep-purple cultivars of Actaea racemosa (which was formerly kown as Cimicifuga racemosa) such as Brunette and Atropurpurea. These stately perennials supply ferny foliage in shades of burgundy as well as tall spikes of tiny white flowers, plus prefer the moist semi-shade that Leycesteria also enjoys.

 

Hostas could synergize with Golden Lanterns if you remember to avoid the blue-leaved forms—Golden Lanterns doesn't need that extra color—as well as the yellow-leaved ones, which will compete. Instead, go for white-variegated forms or—perhaps best—the plain-green Hosta plantaginea forms with showy white flowers: Royal Standard as well as Aphrodite. These are usually in flower in August; will the white flowers of Golden Lanterns begin appearing soon enough?

 

If you commit to controlling its tide of new stems so that they ornament your Golden Lantern instead of swamp it, you could allow Clematis viticella just a bit of leeway. When this vigorous vine's stems are cut back to low buds in spring, flowering should be delayed long enough to coincide with the later-in-summer start of bloom of Leycesteria. There are plenty of viticella cultivars whose flowers are in just the shade of burgundy you'd want, including Etoile Violette and Black Prince. 

 

Growing Golden Lanterns in a container allows possibilities that would be impossible directly in the ground. Taking my cue from the species' pleasure in growing in moist ground, this summer I'll include its container as one of several in a just-for-the-summer water garden in a galvanized horse trough. Trough mates could include a pot of white swamp hibiscus at the back; pots of Striped Beauty canna, swamp crinum, and calla lillies at the sides; and pots of purple-leaved rice at the front. The busy growth of all of these would allow me to site the container of Golden Lanterns amid them, in the middle of the trough. I'll submerge its container just an inch or so, and yet it will still reman hidden.

 

A containered Golden Lanterns could also be grouped with other containered soloists whose soil-moisture needs are handled independently. I always have plenty of pots of yellow-flowered crowns of thorns (Euphorbia millii); it is low and spreading, so could be at the sunny front of Golden Lanterns. Although I'm training four of my Caribbean copper bushes as standards, the fifth will remain shrubby, and could be at the back. Two other burgundy-friendly choices would be Cherry Cola hardy pineapple and Zinfandel volcanic oxalis.

Where to use it in your garden

Leycesteria has surprising versatility. In Zones 8 through 10, where the species' hardiness isn't a problem and its many attractions may well make it almost too popular, Leycesteria might be relegated more to filler status, or even naturalized as wildlife habitat. Even the colorful foliage of Golden Lanterns might not save the shrub from a somewhat workhorse status. In Zones 6 and 7, though, Leycesteria is a rarity that merits prominent siting. In ground, consider it for part-shade locations that are in easy view year-round, so you can follow the emergence of new growth each spring, flowering and fruiting in summer and fall, and (ideally) green leafless stems for some of the winter. Because the entire shrub needs to be cut to the ground sometime during the cold seasons, site it such that you'll still have access even if it is in the midst of companion plantings.

 

Golden Lanterns is also lovely as container plant, whether as an annual or as a specimen nurtured for years.

 

See "Partner plants," above.

Culture

Full sun to part shade in cool-summer climates; part shade in the typically hot and humid summers of eastern North America. Where hardiness is not a concern—probably Zone 8 and warmer, or when this shrub is grown in a container and overwintered in frost-free shelter—Leycesteria is tolerant of high soil moisture and even the permanently saturated soil adjacent to bodies of fresh water. Its tolerance of low-oxygen soils (which are typical with water saturation) is also borne out by its tolerance of clay soils, which are usually poorly-draining and too dense for easy oxygen penetration. 

 

In Zones 6 and 7, it's wiser to grow Leycesteria in soils with normal moisture, and in sites that enhance hardiness by providing good drainage and wind shelter. See "Where to use it" above.

 

Leycesteria is also reported as being surprisingly drought-tolerant, but this is in damp maritime climates such as that of Great Britain, where the added stress of strong sun isn't a factor. In eastern North America, grow this shrub in rich soil and with enough moisture that drought stress is avoided.

How to handle it: The Basics

Plant in spring, ensuring enough water for establishment. The shrub needs no formative pruning or staking; just let the show unfold spring through fall.

 

Handling Leycesteria in the face of your climate's coming winter calls for subtlety and experimentation. If your climate brings frosts severe enough for the foliage to be shed in the fall—but not cold so deep that the bare green stems are killed outright—you can enjoy the winter display of that is bamboo-like or, perhaps more accurately, rush-like: note the leafless green stems of Chondropetalum and Equisetum.

 

If your climate is stiff enough that stems are killed back but the below-ground base of the shrub remains viable to regrow fresh stems in spring, let nature take its course through the winter. Intervene only as spring nears. Stems are reported to show that they have reached their natural lifespan by snapping or collapsing. If they remain erect, there's still the possibility of being killed back by winter or, simply, turning brown from natural senescence. Either way, by spring there is likely to be a little or even a whole lot of grooming to do, because the pleasure of the shrub's array of branches derives as much because of their uniform green as from their smooth upward trajectories.

 

Stems that are brown or kinked or broken off are a real distraction. Even in climates so mild that stems escape winterkill, then, a spring clean-up will still be needed. Because Leycesteria sends up new shoots readily—and bears flowers only at the tips of new growth—there's no need to work your way through the shrub stem by stem, cutting out just the dead or damaged parts as you would, say, when going over Hydrangea macrophylla orHydrangea quercifolia. Whether immaculate, damaged, or dead, last season's Leycesteria stems won't contribute more to this season's display than the crop purely of the new stems the shrub will be producing anyway. So simplify the task and cut all stems back to stubs in early spring.

 

If frosts are rare in your climate, your big intervention is in the fall, not spring. Without at least some frosts, the foliage isn't shed cleanly or quickly enough to achieve the winter display of leafless green bamboo-like stems. Plus, because blooming occurs late in summer at the tips of new growth, its vigor is likely to be the collaborative result of the season's shortening days and that new growth: you'll have a better floral display the following summer if you maximize production of new growth as soon as possible after this summer's display has waned. And because the winter brings little danger of cessation of growth due to frost, why not take advantage of the cool season—likely also to be the wet season—to encourage an early start for the coming year's crop?

 

Gardening in San Francisco, say, or in Cornwall? Winter will be merely cool and rainy, not cold: perfect growing weather for plants that thrive with moisture and shade. So, throw in the towel entirely in terms of any winter display of bare green Leycesteria stems and, instead, cut the bush back in fall after flowering and fruiting are complete. This way, you'll be giving the new crop of stems the longest growing season during which to burgeon before they begin producing flowers in September.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Leycesteria is such a graceful shrub, and it flowers and fruits dramatically late summer into fall when all possible garden interest is at a premium. No wonder gardeners hanker to grow it even where it isn't quite hardy.

 

Increase your chances of success by walking right by descriptions of the shrub's tolerance for wet ground. Instead, follow the rule of thumb that hardiness is maximized when a given plant experiences excellent drainage and, as far as compatible with viability, dry soil during its dormant period. So saying, site Golden Lanterns on a slope, no matter how mild, such that surface water is as likely to drain away laterally as it is to soak down into the soil.

 

Next, because your climate is potentially severe enough to kill the shrub outright, it's certainly severe enough to kill the stems to the ground. So don't worry about retaining them in good condition—but, also, don't simply cut them off at ground level, either. Remember: they are hollow, and can act just like straws to shunt freezing-cold water down into the below-ground heart of the shrub. Instead, sprinkle mulch atop and between them to build up a good mound—six or eight inches, say—and then try to bend the stems over to the side, covering them and holding them down with still more mulch. (You might find it helpful to gather all the stems together in one hand, then bend the hank of them to the ground and anchor the end portion of it with a brick or two.) Lastly, cover the entire mound with a thick piece of cardboard that you then weight it down with three or four pieces of firewood so it doesn't blow away in winter storms.

 

Your Leycesteria colony is now protected from infiltration by freezing rain and snow-melt, and has a much-improved chance of surviving a Zone 6 winter. In late March or April, lift the cardboard and explore into the mound with your fingers to determine viability, let alone emergence of new stems. Scuffle back the mulch some but not entirely. Then, new growth has room to expand, but you could still hustle the cardboard back on top if the weather dipped to fifteen degrees one last time. By May, you should be able to scuffle the mulch back for good, and welcome your colony's new growth into sustained spring warmth.

Quirks and special cases

Golden Lanterns can be exceptional when growing in a container. Should you use it just for the season, see some options in "Plant partners," above. You might also consider growing the shrub as I do, as a containered conservatory specimen carried over year by year. The shrub's multi-stemmed habit and gently expanding footprint will probably crowd out companion plants directly in the same container, so grow a specimen Golden Lanterns as a soloist.

 

Cut all stems back nearly to the ground before new growth emerges in late winter or early spring. Because this growth will be in advance of spring in the garden itself, return the container to the garden only after all danger of frost is past. Water and fertilize generously through the summer: Leycesteria can thrive in wet ground, and the more growth you can encourage, the greater the overall effect as well as the profusion of flowering. You'll need to water frequently for a container's soil to remain wet; experiment by setting the container in a deep saucer to create a shallow water reservoir, or—my strategy for 2017—even submerging the base of the container outright in a water garden.

 

This semi-hardy shrub tolerates mild frosts easily; you might wait to return the container to shelter until after the first few, in hopes that they will cause a quicker and more complete shedding of foliage. Perhaps then the winter display of leafless green stems will be maximized.

 

Especially in the short days and comparatively weak sun experienced by all plants overwintered in a greenhouse, a containered and only sparsely-foliaged Leycesteria might need little watering. The shrub's drought tolerance would only enhance its ability to persist longer between waterings than you'd expect. So unless your goal is display, not dormancy, don't push extra water. And if your greenhouse benches are as crowded as mine, you could also cut back the stems to six or eight inches, which will cut down on the plant's need for water even further.

 

Do, however, water enough to keep the stems from showing signs of browning, which in the frost-free climate of a greenhouse would be from dessication not cold. Pick up the pace when longer and warmer days stimulate emergence of new growth. This is the time to clip off whatever remaining stubby portions of last year's stems are still present, before new growth gets in the way.

Downsides

Here in Zone 6, Leycesteria is usually hardy only in exceptional circumstances: See the second "How to handle it" box, above, for tactics on creating them.

 

Where hardy, Leycesteria can be a prolific self-seeder thanks, in part, to its fruits' great appeal to birds. Judging by one common name, pheasant berry, those birds are especially fond of them; this source notes that the species is planted specifically as cover for game birds. But perhaps the connection is also visual, not gustatory: another common name is pheasant eye, which is suggested by the similar shiny darkness of the glossy fruits and the pupils of these birds' eyes.

 

The species is considered invasive in Australia and New Zealand, so should be watched for unwanted naturalizing whenever growing it in climate zones 8 and warmer.

Variants

In fall, the newest of the plain-green foliage of the straight species—that at the tips of the stems, in other words—also adopts the burgundy tones that make the youngest leaves of Golden Lanterns so showy. But the default seaon-long color of the leaves of Golden Lanterns is chartreuse, which is so much more interesting than green that there would seem to be little reason not to grow this cultivar instead of the straight species. Gold Leaf and Jealousy seem to be indistinguishable from Golden Lanterns, whereas Purple Rain seems to be the same as the straight species.

 

The foliage of Leycesteria crocothyrsos is plain green, but its flowers are bright yellow and, because they lack the large burgundy bracts of L. formosa, they're more immediately showy. That said, it's a difficult trade-off to grow any Leycesteria that lacks those burgundy bracts. Worse, the fruits of L. crocothyrsos are dull green, not shiny chocolate-burgundy. L. crocothyrsos is also more tender, and is hardy only to zone 8b. If you grow just one Leycesteria, you'll probably want to choose L. formosa 'Golden Lanterns'.

Availability

Online and at retailers. Even where it's not hardy, this fast-growing shrub is still likely to be on sale as a foliage plant for seasonal containers. 

Propagation

By division in Spring.  

Native habitat

Leycesteria formosa is not native to the island formerly known as Formosa, which is now known as Taiwan; if it were, the species name might be Leycesteria formosana. In English, formosa means beautiful, which is certainly apt. The species is native many hundreds of miles to the west of Taiwan, in Nepal and Western China.

 
 
FacebookTwitterRSS Feed

Stay in touch!

 

Sign up for twice-monthly eNews, plus notification of new posts:

 

* indicates required