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