As all gardeners know, there are many plant superstars out there that are not grown enough, are hard to find or buy and are not well known. If you can grow rhododendron, pieris or erica in your garden, then search out the genus Enkianthus.
There are several species in the genus and they all originate from North and Eastern Asia, some from high altitudes, making them hardy for all areas of New Zealand. What makes this plant a superstar? Well, when you see one of these in someone else’s garden, you will want one for home. In spring, they come into their own with pendulous, bell-shaped flowers, with frilly edges hanging in long racemes down along all the branches. Even though individual flowers are small and understated, the overall effect is spectacular, making this plant an aristocrat of the plant world. The great thing is that the show is not over once the long-lasting flowers finish; summer brings green foliage, and autumn turns these little shrubs into glowing bonfires of colour. Often the colour can start to form early, in late February, and intensify throughout March and April, sometimes through to May.
The key to growing this beautiful shrub is a neutral to acidic, moist organic soil. If your soil is not suitable, then they can be grown in a large pot with ericaceous compost.
It can tolerate full sun, but this is a genus that likes woodland situations in dappled shade, but do not overcrowd and keep amply watered in dry spells.
The plant does not normally require pruning, but can be pruned while dormant if needed. It dislikes permanently wet soils as it can cause root rot, but does not tend to suffer from pests and diseases.
As Enkianthus like acidic or ericaceous conditions, it complements other plants with similar requirements. The most reliable are rhododendron and camellia species, but the range is huge. The main difference is many other species with these requirements are evergreen, so the autumn colour and deciduous nature of Enkianthus is a welcome break from the dense feeling of these areas. Any plant that likes woodland-type situations, in a moist organic soil, will grow well. Also, because of the deciduous nature of Enkianthus, winter bulbs are a good option for under-planting these small shrubs. Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) will bloom at the same time as the autumn colour, and in late winter and spring, snowdrops (Galanthus) will thrive underneath the bare branches.