Weigela: the plant formerly known as Cardinal
Family: Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle
Species: just ten, but focus on the cultivars!
usual, I have an ulterior motive for selecting a shrub as this
months featured plant. Consider it a sort of penance
for breaking several cardinalyes, the pun is intendedrules
of garden planning. Captivated by the many flowering herbaceous
perennials available for experimentation, I filled my garden
with so many that I neglected the mid-level portions of my
borders that rightfully belong to medium-sized shrubs. Any
garden-planning guide would have predicted the outcome, if
Id only paid attention. After a few years the profusion
of flowering glory spilled together in a haphazard fashion
that left the viewers eyes glazed and their brains confused.
There was little visual structure to bind together all those
colors and shapes, and what there was, tended to the very tall
or the very short. After surveying the chaos, I considered
where my garden might need calming regularity and middle-height
presence. I identified the sites, chose the shrubs, and planted
them amongst the perennials and larger conifers that I love,
refusing to believe that a six-foot spread did indeed mean
that the shrub would sprawl that far. Still resistant to the
cautions raised by books, I rectified the situation, I thought,
by planning backwards. Bad idea.
careful gardeners who pay attention to those useful books
know what happened. I turned my back for two seasons
and those sweet, wee little shrubs answered the call of their
genetic destinies and started to grow at an alarming rate.
Suddenlyfor this gardener, two years is suddenit
was apparent that everything was way too close to everything
else. The leaves of that formerly small deciduous shrub didnt
change size, and they still looked lovely against their backdrop,
as Id intended. But the shrub that bore them was elbowing
its way into the conifer behind and crowding its neighbors,
each of which was crowding right back. So because I planned
backwards, I had to work backwards, removing, rearranging,
and yes, even offing some things to make room for the shrubs
to spread. Why did I think they wouldnt grow to the dimensions
in their descriptions? Who knows
but as I renovate my
landscape, sometimes lugging shrubs across the yard to their
new homes, Ive had the chance to consider my deep affection
for some of them. Ive realized, for example, just how
wacky I am about Weigela. My gardening forebears called
it Cardinal Shrub, not to be confused with Cardinal Flower,
by which they clearly meant the perennial Lobelia cardinalis.
My best theory is that both derived the name from the color
of their blooms. Cardinal ShrubWeigela floridawas
very popular a generation or two ago, because of its flowers
in spring and its extreme hardiness and ease of care. All members
of the genus are native to East Asia, where W. florida was
discovered and brought to Europe in 1845 by Robert Fortune.
It was named in honor of a German botanist; and by the way,
in plant nomenclature, florida refers to the striking
nature of usually red-hued blooms. It does not mean the plant
is native to or has any other relationship with that state
in the southeastern US.
When Fortune brought W. florida to Europe,
the horticulturalists there took to it immediately, because
of its form and flowers, toughness, and dependability. By the
1860s the attributes of the species had been enhanced through
careful breeding. Today, there are more than 170 named cultivars,
most bred in Europe and Canada. Weigela was once considered
something of a bore because of its one-season showits
trumpet-shaped flowers in shades of red, pink, rose, and white
were admittedly spectacular in the spring but when they faded,
the shrub offered little but nondescript leaves on tangled
twigs during summer and fall. But varieties of Weigela are
now available with fabulous foliage, whether clear green, purple
to nearly black, or yellow-tinged and variegated. Stems are
in great demand by the floral trade for use in arrangements.
The leaves are that attractive. In the garden, Weigela can
offer three-season interest. There are yellow-flowered varieties,
others that bloom a second time, and still others that dont
stop blooming from June to September. There are cultivars as
small as 18 inches for the front of the border as well as those
that sprawl 10 feet in height and width, for the back, and
lots of choices in between for the middle, thank goodness.
All are hardy here and appreciate our cool summers. They do
best in full sun and theyre not overly particular about
soil or water although of course theyll look their best
when planted in a well-prepared site with good drainage, and
watered regularly. Few pests or diseases bother these shrubs;
they can withstand even pollution without ill effects and are
therefore suited to streetside sitings.
Your most serious dilemma might be choosing the Weigela thats
right for you. There are plenty to be seen at garden centers,
in catalogs, and on the Web. You can even start with www.weigela.com!
Once youve made your choice, plant it in a sunny location,
give it sensible garden care, and prune it by as much as one-third
right after it blooms. And learn from my mistakes
to give it room to grow. Yes, it will match the description
written on the tag, and sooner than you might think. Take my
word for it . . .