• By Janine Pineo •
There once was a gardener with an enkianthus.
No, it’s not painful — it’s a bush.
But this enkianthus was a bush without blossoms.
The lure of the enkianthus came upon the unsuspecting gardener on a long-ago visit to the Asticou Azalea Gardens on Mount Desert Island. The enkianthus was in full bloom that balmy spring day, its tiny, bell-like flowers hanging in thick clusters all over the treelike shrub. The creamy blossoms with their red scalloped edges had to be seen up close to be appreciated fully.
I appreciate bells. I appreciate flowers. I appreciate subtle.
I was hooked.
So I went and bought an Enkianthus campanulatus, better known as redvein enkianthus — or at least it’s easier to pronounce.
I planted my little shrub and watched it develop a nice form its first couple of years. This deciduous bush has a curious habit, with leaves clustered at the end of shoots, resembling an armful of whirligigs shooting off in a hundred different directions.
In autumn, the enkianthus puts on a colorful show in various shades of orange and red. Mine leans to bright orange with a hint of red, an eye-catching sight in the middle of the green lawn.
Each spring I would watch and wait and wander by, but never a hint of any flowers.
I wondered if it was too cold for this enkianthus variety. My gardening encyclopedia says it’s a Zone 5 plant and I am a long drive from gardening in Zone 5.
I wondered if it was too dry up near the crest of the back lawn. But the book says it’s often found in scrub land, which sounds dry to me.
I wondered a lot about what I was doing wrong and, after a few years, finally accepted that I could do nothing but wait.
That was last year.
This year, my enkianthus blossomed, presumably because I had given up on it.
At first, I couldn’t tell what kind of strange growths were covering it. I hardly dared to hope they were developing buds.
Now I am reveling in this shrub’s quiet beauty. Part of me would like to add more varieties to my yard, but the enkianthus genus is small and decidedly select.
The 10 or so species of enkianthus are native to scrub and woodland from the Himalayas to Japan. My horticultural encyclopedia rates all but one species for warmer climes of Zone 6 and higher. The single Zone 5 species is the one I have, redvein enkianthus. True, my plant is thriving in Zone 4 and spends some nights in a bitter Zone 3, which just goes to show that books can sometimes be wrong.
The shrub may never reach 12 feet tall or 15 feet wide because it is growing in colder conditions, but even now it is more than 5 feet tall and a couple of feet wide. It gives me some hope for the future.
Maybe someday I can try one of the other redvein varieties, perhaps E. campanulatus var. palibinii, which boasts dark red flowers.
In the meantime, I have to rely on another shrub for red flowers, one that blossoms just as the enkianthus blooms are beginning to fade.
Like the enkianthus clan, weigela is a small genus of 12 species found mostly in scrub and woodland in East Asia. The odd moniker comes from the name of a German physician who lived from 1748 to 1831, C.E. Weigel. Why it’s named after this person remains a mystery to me, but I’ll keep looking.
Unlike the majority of the enkianthus genus, weigelas are visually bolder with showy funnel-shaped flowers that blossom in pink or red, although there are whites and yellows, too.
My weigela is an important part of my yard because of its flowers — hummingbirds love them. The shape is perfect for their long beaks, and the more common red and pink shades are the birds’ favorites.
Weigelas generally are hardy to Zone 4, but there is one variety, W. `Minuet’ that tolerates Zone 3 conditions. The shrubs can grow to impressive sizes, up to 6 to 8 feet tall and wide.
Neither my enkianthus nor my weigela get any special attention. They are planted in dry lawn areas and appear to be thriving without much help from me. The weigela has blossomed since its first year in the ground and has been pruned once to remove a couple of dead shoots. The flowers bloom on the previous year’s growth, making pruning an unnecessary risk to the next year’s show. I’ve never pruned the enkianthus.
So treat your hummingbirds to a weigela, then treat yourself to the subtle pleasures of an enkianthus.
The wait will pay off.
First published in the Bangor Daily News in June 2000.
2013 update: As you can see from the pictures, my enkianthus blooms to its heart’s content every spring, delighting me and the pollinators with its copious clusters of bells. It has easily topped 12 feet in height and still puts on a display of color in the fall, which you can see here. The weigela also keeps on blooming, requiring a bit of pruning every year now to trim back older branches that die off.