Foliage, texture and shape all play an important part in choosing a plant for the winter garden. One of my favorite plants for winter landscaping is Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Girard’s Rainbow’ – a graceful evergreen shrub with variegated foliage on red-streaked branches. I first fell in love with the plant visiting my brother in Seattle about 12 years ago. He took me to a huge nursery that was stocked with plants that flourished in the Pacific Northwest but were not widely available here at that time. I could not resist the leucothoe, and brought a small specimen in a 4” pot home with me. Planted under a native dogwood next to my front porch, the leucothoe has thrived and bloomed reliably every year.
Although it looks somewhat exotic, luecothoe is native to North America, at home along the banks of creeks or massed in front of shrub borders. While there are many varieties of leucothoe, ‘Girard’s Rainbow’ is the most widely available variegated cultivar. Its shiny foliage emerges white, pink and copper on arching stems, maturing to green streaked with cream. Some plants also display burgundy-edged foliage, particularly in winter. This shrub is a slow grower that reaches 3-5 feet tall and wide. Its white, fragrant, and somewhat pitcher shaped blooms are born in clusters similar to blueberry and lily-of-the-valley flowers. Although it blooms prolifically in mid-spring, there is so much foliage that the visual display is not particularly showy.
This evergreen is easy to grow and quite versatile as a garden shrub. A woodland native, it prefers a site in part shade with deep, acid, well drained soil amended with plenty of organic matter. It needs little or no pruning, but may be rejuvenated if needed by cutting back all the way after flowering. Mine is pruned whenever I have to create a flower arrangement or just want to bring some greenery indoors– the variegated foliage is beautiful on its own and complements many flowers. Once mature, leucothoe is also easily propagated by snipping off branches that have touched the ground and rooted. I now have many offspring of the Seattle leucothoe growing in my garden and in those of my friends.
Despite its great looks, leucothoe 'Rainbow' is not very well known, so it is often overlooked by both homeowners and professional landscapers. It makes an ideal plant in borders, foundation plantings or in combination shrub plantings. It is very effective when planted against an evergreen background, and brightens up shady spots. Leucothoe is a natural companion plant to rhododendrons, and is often used to "loosen up" the tight feel that hollies and boxwood give to the landscape. It also looks great surrounded by hostas, ferns and hellebores, and makes a beautiful statement in the winter garden.