Spring is here and is showing its usual capricious nature: bestowing a warm, picture-perfect, sky-blue day some days, then catapulting us back into winter on Saturday afternoon with miserably cold, rainy weather. Nevertheless, spring shrubs are powering into bloom and it is a joy to see gardens everywhere illuminated with flowers. I don't have much of a spring garden (as I have tended to concentrate on summer and autumn) but I do have some spring shrubs here and there to give me that seasonal boost. They are in general very low-maintenance plants that only need occasional fertiliser and a quick prune after flowering, and they will put on a show year after year. The evergreen sorts help provide permanent structure in a garden where many other plants are cut almost to the ground at this time, and there is a diversity of shapes in their floral form, which adds to their interest.
There are some classic Sydney shrubs that have proved their worth over the years. Interestingly enough, most of the hail from China or Japan and they are very at home in our climate. Azaleas are one of the commonest flowering shrubs to be noticed in Sydney in September; as I have written in a previous blog, I am deeply ambivalent about these plants. They are truly gorgeous in full bloom yet they are victims of a variety of pests and diseases that really need an artillery of chemicals to keep them under control, so I have given them up, apart from two old stalwarts at the top of my long driveway, that I do not spray with anything. They are the old-fashioned sorts, and seem a bit more resilient to some of their attackers, but they still do get petal blight and red spider. I tend to deal with these problems by pruning back the whole plant severely once the petal blight takes hold and disposing of the stems in the green waste bin, to try to get rid of the petal blight spores from my garden.
More favoured in my garden are shrubs like the lovely arching may bush (Spiraea cantoniensis, ht 2 m) from China, which is a froth of tumbling white blooms at the moment. I always liked to see this deciduous shrub able to show off its weeping habit to its full potential, by just removing a few old stems at the base and just lightly trim the remainder when pruning, but in recent years I have shaped mine into a large oval form by trimming every so often during the year but stopping as soon as the buds form, as it took up too much space with the weeping habit where I had it. I grow mine near white-striped Miscanthus sinensis 'Variegatus' as a colour echo - the new grow of the grass is starting to appear now. I have admired some may bushes growing with some dark-leaved Phormium in a garden in my suburb, providing a nice tonal contrast.
Rhaphiolepis species and cultivars (ht 1-2.5 m) are good little evergreen shrubs blooming now (pictured at the start of the blog) with simple pink or white flowers. Known colloquially as Indian hawthorn, they do actually come from China. They are completely undemanding but look good all year round and can be grown as a hedge. There are some more compact cultivars available these days, including 'Cosmic Pink' and 'Cosmic White', which are very useful. Rhapiolepis can grow in sun or part shade and can put up with quite ordinary soil and conditions.
Another of my favourites from China (it is also found in Japan and Myanmar) is Loropetalum chinense (ht 2 m) and these shrubs are looking particularly good this year, perhaps because of all the rain we had during winter. It has an interesting horizontal habit and naturally grows quite wide, though it can be pruned (after flowering) into any shape if preferred. The original species has pretty creamy-white spidery flowers, but my favourite ones have burgundy-coloured leaves and pink flowers. There are various cultivars, including 'Burgundy' and 'China Pink' - their foliage is stunning in spring and early summer but does tend to turn green eventually. A new cultivar called 'Plum Gorgeous' is said to retain its coloured foliage all year round. 'Purple Pixie' is a dwarf cultivar growing to around 50 cm tall and makes a good low hedge.Loropetalum is another undemanding shrub, which will grow in sun or part-shade. I am enjoying my dark-leaved one with bluebells and Iris japonica growing around its base. It would also associate well with some of the dark pink or plum-coloured hybrid hellebores. This is another shrub that I now clip - the lower branches have been removed and the top shaped as a dome, so it looks like a small tree.
An unusual shrub flowering now belongs to the Acanthaceae family and has the hooded blooms typical of that group of plants, closely resembling those of the oyster plant (Acanthus mollis). Justicia adhatoda (ht to 4 m) is not spectacular but its puple-netted white blooms are interesting and it has gorgeous quilted, limy-green spring foliage, which is looking very lush at the moment. It is a good background plant for a semi-shaded position and like most of the Acanthaceae plants, grows quickly and easily, and it has no special requirements. I chop it back very hard after flowering.
Other spring shrubs I am enjoying at the moment include the scented pink posies of Rondeletia amoena, the floriferous bells of Abutilon in many colours, the brilliant orange flower clusters of the marmalade bush (Streptosolen jamesonii), the brilliant purple pea flowers of Polygala 'Little Charmer' and the fluffy orbs of the purple mist flower (Eupatorium megalophyllum).
Enjoy your spring garden!
This blog was originally posted on 11 September 2011; updated 5 September 2021.
19 Sep 21
Meet some of the ferns that grow well in Sydney,
A garland of daisies
12 Sep 21
Daisies seem to epitomise spring and there are lots to choose from for Sydney gardens.
05 Sep 21
September sees some beautiful and easy-going shrubs come into bloom in Sydney.
Borage and kin
29 Aug 21
The herb borage has some easily grown relatives.
22 Aug 21
Many plants need rejuvenation after a few years.