Sidelined in recent years, decorative shrubs are ideal for shady urban plots
If you are a regular reader, it will probably come as no surprise to you that I am fascinated by horticultural trends. While these can often be dismissed as faddish, I believe they are essential for driving innovation forward, allowing us to flex our creative muscles instead of sticking to a narrow range of tried and tested ideas. However, I am the first to admit that a love of the new and unusual can come with a hefty downside. It can cause us to overlook perfectly valid options because their horticultural star is not in ascendance.
With style barometers, such as the Chelsea flower show and glossy gardening magazines, still dominated by schemes of multi-stemmed small trees dotted in a sea of prairie-like perennials, perhaps the biggest victims of this process are shrubs. While they were a keystone of most planting plans in the 1970s, today this whole group has, sadly, been sidelined. Given the ever decreasing size of our plots, however, I find this a travesty. So here are a few of my favourite quirky and novel shrubs that will provide year-round structure and character in spaces too small for even the smallest tree to squeeze into. Why they aren’t more popular, I will never know…
Schefflera taiwaniana is a recent winner of an Award of Garden Merit (AGM) from the Royal Horticultural Society. After extensive outdoor trials, the plant’s fascinatingly beautiful foliage has proved to be as tough as it comes. A close relative of the umbrella plant that graces living rooms everywhere, its graceful, hand-shaped leaves drip from character-filled branches. They are surprisingly fast-growing, too, and will quickly reach about 3m from the knee-high specimens usually on sale.
If you want to turn up the dial on exoticism, with bigger, more divided leaves, you should give the related Aralia polycarpa a go. This looks very like the more familiar false castor oil plant (Fatsia japonica), but with glossy leaves about twice the size and with far more pointy “fingers” on each palm-shaped leaf. Both are perfect candidates for urban plots overshadowed by tall buildings and neighbouring trees, which mimic their woodland habitat.
If you are after something more delicate and ethereal for a similar spot, I’d pick Hebe salicifolia. It has a fluffy canopy of long, thin, apple-green leaves on statuesque, branching stems. If you love willows, but don’t have the space for them, these 2m shrubs are a great option (salicifolium means willow-like leaves). But, unlike willows, they have the added benefit of being evergreen in winter and bursting into life with snowy white flowers in summer, which the bees love.
Finally, if you need something to complete your miniature woodland, Pittosporum illicioides is perhaps the shrub with the most delicate, textural foliage of all. Its green pendant leaves seem to float in mid-air from wispy branches that eventually create a loose, umbrella shape about 2.5m tall. How could this plant get better? Well, it has hanging, highly scented, white flowers in early summer and appears to be immune to every pest and disease out there.
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