Weigela: the plant formerly known as Cardinal Shrub

Family: Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle family)
Genus: Weigela
Species: just ten, but focus on the cultivars!

Bristol RubyAs usual, I have an ulterior motive for selecting a shrub as this month’s featured plant. Consider it a sort of penance for breaking several cardinal—yes, the pun is intended—rules 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 I’d 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.

You 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. Suddenly—for this gardener, two years is “sudden”—it was apparent that everything was way too close to everything else. The leaves of that formerly small deciduous shrub didn’t change size, and they still looked lovely against their backdrop, as I’d 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 wouldn’t 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, I’ve had the chance to consider my deep affection for some of them. I’ve 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 Shrub—Weigela florida—was 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 show—its 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 don’t 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 they’re not overly particular about soil or water although of course they’ll 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 that’s 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 you’ve 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…do remember 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 . . .