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One of the most difficult elements of creating a garden is ensuring that there is colour all year round. This isn't much of a problem during spring and summer and even in autumn there is plenty of colour, even if only from turning leaves, but winter is altogether a different matter. By the middle of winter the perennials have died back, deciduous shrubs have shed their leaves leaving only the bare skeleton of their branches and most of the colour in the garden comes from conifers, berries (if the birds have left any) and the leaves of evergreen shrubs. One of the most versatile evergreens has to be the skimmia which has a variety of forms, all of which provide interest and colour throughout the gardening year. Not only that but these shrubs have the added bonus of being shade tolerant, too.
Despite their hardiness, this genus originates from the warm temperate zones of Asia ranging from the lower lying woodlands of the Himalayas and Afghanistan in the north and west, to Japan and Vietnam in the south and east. Though there are four species ranging from small trees to medium sized shrubs, the species mainly grown in British gardens tend to be the smaller ones reaching about a meter or slightly more in height and breadth and of these, the most commonly grown is skimmia japonica, along with its sub-species skimmia japonica 'reevesiana'. Despite belonging to the same species, the variants are many and provide a diversity of leaf colour, flowers and berries, all of which allow the gardener to grow more than one cultivar in the same garden and still provide variety.
Appearance and Habit:
Despite all their variants, skimmia do have some similar features mainly in their leaf shape and growth habit. The lance or spear shaped leaves grow in close pairs and above these are formed panicles of tightly packed buds which grow and develop over the winter months, looking almost like little pink berries, before bursting open into tiny star-shaped flowers in spring. Depending on the gender of plant, the flowers are followed by the berries in late autumn. The general shape of the fully mature shrub is a soft dome, although some varieties grow in a more straggling way and there are other varieties which have a creeping habit. The leaves of all plants are similar in shape but colour can vary from a dark, glaucous blue-green to bright limey-green with some varieties having creamy margins or slightly reddish edges. The flowers, too, can range in colour from pure white to deep reddish pink.
The gender of plant is important when buying a skimmia, especially if you want winter berries. Skimmia plants will be either male, female or hermaphrodite. Obviously, if you buy a hermaphrodite cultivar such as 'reevesiana' berries are guaranteed but for other cultivars, to ensure the plant bears berries, you will need to buy a male and female or plant one of either gender within pollinating distance of the other. The berries vary in colour depending on the variety with some 'reevesiana' producing bluey-black oval shaped berries, though most female skimmia japonica shrubs produce bright red spherical berries slightly larger than those on a holly.
Care and Maintenance:
These shrubs are the friend of the lazy gardener. One of the reasons that I grow skimmia is because I'm changing the style of my garden from the cottage style to a more easily maintained plot with lots of shrubs and bulbs. Although I won't say these shrubs thrive on neglect, they don't require much care and attention other than to ensure they have an adequate supply of water during hot dry spells. Their native habitat is the woodland regions of Asia, so skimmia thrive in dappled to fairly deep shade and this is where they do best in British gardens, although they will tolerate a sunnier aspect. Another benefit of this plant is that they will grow quite happily in a container.
These plants are relatively slow growing and the fully matured shrub naturally forms a dome shape so the plant doesn't require much pruning, if any, although if it's becoming too big or straggly, I've found with my own plants that they can be pruned back quite hard without any problem. Being a woodland plant, skimmia prefer a fairly rich loamy soil but again, my own experience has shown that they will do quite well on less fertile ground. One of my plants is growing close to the garden wall in dry shade and the soil condition is really quite poor. Despite this, the skimmia is growing very happily and the growth is lush enough that a robin built its nest there this year, though this did result in quite a bit of bird poop on the leaves: providing more leaf colour variation than expected!
These shrubs are pretty hardy and all three of my skimmia came through the last couple of winters completely unscathed, despite two of them growing in areas of my garden which are frost pockets. I'd taken a few cuttings last year which I was growing on in a small plastic greenhouse in a relatively sheltered area of the garden and some of them didn't make it so I think probably hardiness is dependent on the maturity of the shrub. I've taken more cuttings this year and have sunk the pots into the soil and covered them with bark chippings for protection against any frost.
I've had my skimmia plants for several years now and they have not suffered from any diseases or attacks from pests. I did a bit of research for this review and it seems that they can be prone to red spider mite but this can be dealt with by regular spraying.
I've taken soft wood cuttings from my skimmia plants with varying degrees of success, notwithstanding those I lost during last winter. I currently have two or three very small plants which seem to have taken and I've transplanted them into larger pots. Of the cuttings taken this year, it's too early to tell whether they've begun to develop roots but so far they look healthy enough. New plants can also be propagated from berries but I've never tried this method though as this is nature's way of propagation, I can only assume it's relatively simple.
Probably because they are slow maturing shrubs, skimmia aren't particularly cheap to buy and you should expect to pay something in the region of £7 to £10 for a well established container grown plant from a garden centre. There are cheaper ones to be found on eBay for £3 or £4 or you can beg a cutting from a neighbour. Most gardeners are only too happy to give fellow enthusiasts a freebie.
To sum up:
Personally, I think every garden should have at least one skimmia. They are attractive shrubs which grow slowly enough to not rapidly outgrow their allotted space and they can be pruned back if they do. They have evergreen leaves with flowers and berries which provide extra colour during the bleakest times of the year and if you choose one of the hermaphrodite cultivars, berries will be guaranteed. Even in the summer months after the flowers are over and the berries are forming, the leaves are attractive enough to provide a foil for other plants growing in the garden and possibly, if you're lucky, a summer residence for the birds.
A scented feature plantRHS AGM Award Buy 2 get 1 Free! Click here This variety has attactive red margined, dark green leaves that produce scented flowers in the spring. It is perfect for growing in containers and will make a great feature all year round.