Japanese Spurge

Family:Buxaceae (Boxwood Family
Genus: Pachysandra
Species: terminalis

PachysandraThis month’s column is dedicated to the proposition that everything old is new again. Spring showed up right on schedule—by the calendar if not by the thermometer—and the detritus of last year’s gardens is gone, pulled off and hauled away or donated to the compost bin. Dusty grays and browns are giving way to fresh green…new leaves are unfurling and it seems as if blossoms everywhere are ready to pop.

So are my knees.

This is the time of year when my knees start to complain. For hours on end I crawl around on them, stalking the bittercress and the chickweed and the first flush of thistle and horsetail. I don’t weed anymore—that activity is too discouraging to contemplate, since I’ll never get rid of them all. No, these days I “interfere with the life cycles of undesirable plants.” It’s always a work in progress. But at some point each spring, a good, weed-blocking ground cover starts to sound pretty darn good. Something attractive, something dependable—a friendly ally to help me with the interfering part so I can save what’s left of my knees for another session or two in the garden. There are lots of choices, but these days one stands leaf and stem above the others.

Pachysandra—commonly called Spurge by some—has fallen out of favor in recent years. It’s been described as mundane, stodgy, overused—even called a cliché and dismissed as the hallmark of unimaginative garden design. Hah, say I, and my knees agree. And wouldn’t you know—Pachysandra has been rediscovered, as old standbys often are, just because they’ve lasted long enough to qualify as standbys. They behave themselves and perform just as they’re supposed to, maybe with less pizzazz than the newest hot trend, but with a whole lot more dependability.

There are five species of the genus Pachysandra. Four are native to east Asia, and P. terminalis is one of them. It’s commonly known as Japanese Spurge. This species grows up to ten inches tall and spreads by underground rhizomes, forming a mat dense enough to block weeds and control erosion. P. terminalis likes shade and doesn’t mind having its toes wet. It will even tolerate dry shade, once it’s established, so long as it gets a good soaking once every ten days or so. Overhead watering will keep its glossy leaves shining, but it also increases the risk of the only real threat to its well-being—pachysandra blight, a fungal disease that is best controlled by prevention. Follow good sanitation procedures; keep dropped leaves from accumulating into a soggy, matted mass; and be on the lookout for scale. If you spot scale or its telltale honeydew, remember that dormant oil in early spring is effective, as are insecticidal soaps when the crawlers (unfortunately called “babies”) are active in early summer.

Set Pachysandra 8 or so inches apart throughout the area you want it to cover. Consider planting it singly, as well, as an accent any place you might put a hosta. Ann Lovejoy suggests you’ll see it with new eyes—and you might even be more likely to notice the insignificant flowers, slightly fragrant, in summer, followed by tiny white fruit. Varieties are available, as well: ‘Green Carpet’, more compact and even greener; and ‘Silver Edge’, with the obvious attribute on the leaves. All P. terminalis, species and cultivars, are evergreen and hardy to Sunset Zone 1.

So an old favorite is new again. It will help with your weeding chores and provide a dependable swath of green in whichever shady place you have available. Its comfortably familiar form will form a good backdrop for most of the more exotic shade-lovers that we find hard to resist. And it’s already withstood the slings and arrows of those who would have us all teetering on the very edge of the newest gardening trend. Think of P. terminalis as a survivor. Treat it well, and it will treat you well right back. And your knees will be ever so grateful.