Tree Talk: Bright, bold and glossy contrast

Provided to the MPT

Contrast. One often hears or reads the term when exploring art, interior design, fashion or gardening. It’s the practice of putting two different colors or shapes together, each of which makes the other stand out.

In the gardens of the Pacific Northwest, contrast often means playing a contrasting plant color against the vast palette of greens in our evergreen world. It might also mean using a different shape of foliage in harmony with needled conifers.

Three foliage colors are most commonly paired with green: yellow or gold, blues and bluish grays, and reds. Yellows are abundant, blues less so. When it comes to reds, maples, assorted European beeches, smoke trees, a number of barberries and others sport reds in a range of shades. Trouble is, nearly all of them are deciduous, so come winter, you’re looking at bare branches.

Photinia is the uncommon exception. Its broad leaves are a vivid, glossy copper or red from spring into summer. The foliage makes a striking contrast to our ubiquitous greenery.

In a genus of 40 plants, all from Asia, there are three species of evergreen Photinia common to Northwest horticulture. Photinia glabra, native to Japan, reaches 20 feet in height and makes for a handsome, garden scale, broad-leafed evergreen tree. Leaves are coppery when young, aging green by autumn. Spring blooms are 4-inch clusters, reminiscent of a sturdy Queen Anne’s lace, turning into red berries that are near black by season’s end. Chinese native P. serrulata, reaches 40 feet tall. Its leaves are also copper colored when new. The tree’s crown is broad and dense in maturity. In flower it is a mass of tiny cream-colored blossoms in clusters that measure 6 inches across.

These two Photinias produced a much-loved, highly versatile offspring: Photinia X fraseri.  A broad-leafed shrub or small tree, to a maximum height of 15 feet, P. faseri has all the strengths of its parents, but with far brighter spring and summer foliage. The leaves, which can be almost 5 inches long, are a bright, almost surrealistic red. Grown as a hefty shrub, it can fill the corner of any garden or anchor a circular driveway. As a loose hedge, it will define a large property or buffer an unwanted view. As a small garden tree, it is statuesque.

Early spring is the prime time to plant most things, this evergreen tree included, but if you buy a plant today, you can plant it now if you water it (about 15 gallons a week) until seasonal rains start. Place this Photinia where it will get ample exposure to sunlight to ensure flame red new growth. It thrives in our rich acid soil. Our typical annual rainfall is sufficient. The plant is considered drought-tolerant once established. Tip pruning the new growth in late summer keeps it dense and compact. Shearing is a mistake. It butchers the large, handsome leaves.

To train the plant into a small tree, removed lower branches. It is effective with either a single trunk or with multiple trunks. Select the vertical shoots you want, pruning off all side shoots, about halfway up the plant. As it grows, continue this process to as much as 6 or 8 feet above soil level. Take cut foliage indoors for long lasting bouquets.

The showiness of this plant is anything but narcissistic. There’s a generosity to it. Backed by one of our dark green conifers, the bright, bold and glossy leaves seem to shout: “Look at me and look at what’s behind me!”

Contrast is not dominance. Photinia is a real team player.