Escallonia

Family: Escalloniaceae (although sometimes placed in one of several other families, most often Grossulariaceae)
Genus: Escallonia

July and August are reputed to be the months when gardeners reap their rewards for all the hard work over so many months. Everything looks extraordinarily beautiful right now as our ornamentals put on their most splendid show of the year. The effect is enhanced because all that riotous color is set against the green backdrop of gardening’s Old Faithfuls: the hedges and free-form shrubs that provide structure and bring visual order to all the splendid colors of the mid-summer garden.

In the Pacific Northwest, there is a seemingly endless choice of shrubs to fill this purpose. One of my favorites is Escallonia—commonly called by its genus name but sometimes referred to as “redclaws,” a moniker that seems unsuited to this least intimidating and most gentle-looking plant, although perhaps the name was chosen by a hapless gardener who while pruning ran afoul of escallonia’s thorns. They’re only a problem, however, if you attempt to reach inside the shrub to remove twiggy growth. Stick to shearing, and you’ll avoid the thorns entirely. They do make escallonia a most effective hedge, however, and a wonderful habitat for birds—who love escallonia for that very reason. They can duck inside—and they do, in great numbers—while cats learn on their first attempt that the shrub and the birds inside are painfully off limits. Most of us can’t have—or choose not to have—sizeable brush piles for birds in our urban gardens. A large escallonia will serve both the birds’ well-being and the aesthetic sensibilities of the gardener. Put one next to a sprawling flowering quince, and you’ll provide a habitat for birds that will delight you and them all the year round.

Escallonia is one of only a few shrubs that do well in the two areas in which I’ve done most of my gardening: the central California coast and here in Whatcom County. I should add a disclaimer immediately: I have grown escallonia successfully here for twelve years, as have my neighbors, even though the books caution that it is only marginally hardy in our climate. Mine have withstood Northeasters from their quite unprotected vantage point in a windblown section of the yard. Escallonia is known for its resistance to wind and also for its tolerance to salt spray, which makes it admirably suited for seaside gardens. It has been my experience that it can survive our winters without so much as a hiccup, although your experience might be different if you live in the northern areas of our county. I have Escallonia ‘Apple Blossom’, which is rated as one of the hardiest varieties. Another hardy type is E. ‘Edinensis’. I greatly admire my neighbor’s escallonia. Put in many years ago, it has reached its full height of perhaps three feet, and its deep-rose flowers appear steadily from early summer to frost. I suspect it is a variety of E. rubra, although its identifying tags are long gone. I’ve asked my neighbor if I can take cuttings this month so I can start a few of this unnamed but beautiful escallonia for my own yard. Left largely unattended, it provides continuous bloom, hasn’t sent up one sucker, and holds its form with no pruning at all. I can’t say the same for my E. ‘Apple Blossom.’ Without annual shearing, it begins to look twiggy and sparse. I once left it alone for three seasons and the results were so unsightly that I tore into it with shears and cropped it with gusto. There were fewer blooms the next year, but once again it looks compact, tidy, and relentlessly green. Its blooms are pink and white—reminiscent in color of apple blossoms, hence the name, but appearing a full two months after my apple trees bloomed. Other varieties offer flowers from white to deep rose, and always those lovely green leaves. Because escallonia blooms on old as well as new wood, the chances of repeat bloom in a season are very good.

So long as it has good drainage, escallonia tolerates all types of soil, from sand to clay. It doesn’t even care whether it is acid or alkaline. Once established, escallonia needs little supplemental water. It is not prone to diseases and pests don’t bother it—perhaps while the birds are frolicking inside the shrub, they snack on any insects before the insects can snack on the shrub. You’ll attract bees and butterflies and hummingbirds with your escallonia—all three are attracted to it and each is an important pollinator.

While escallonia is not native to our area—it hails from South America where it was discovered in the latter part of the nineteenth century and carried to Great Britain, making an immediate hit with the Victorians—it poses no threat to our indigenous vegetation. So all in all, for appearance, ease of care, non-invasiveness, and friendliness to wildlife, escallonia is an excellent choice for the Pacific Northwest garden. It will make everything around it look good, while starring itself in the good-looks department.