Redvein Enkianthus: Easier to Grow Than to Say

Recently, I came across a list of Cary Award-winning plants. The Cary Award program is designed to promote the use of outstanding plants for New England gardens. It is administered by Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA and is named after Shrewsbury plantsman Ed Cary. One of the purposes of the program is to highlight relatively uncommon plants that New England gardeners can choose with confidence as good performers for their home landscapes. In its first year, 1997, five plants were selected as winners, including one of my favorites, the Redvein Enkianthus.

I first encountered this plant many years ago, while visiting a lovely garden full of towering rhododendrons, mountain laurels, and azaleas in Concord, MA. As I walked along the woodland paths, I glanced up and saw I was beneath a tall, smooth-barked shrub with dangling, bell-shaped creamy pink flowers. Later, I asked the owner about the plant and learned it was a Redvein Enkianthus.

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Redvein Enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus) is an upright deciduous shrub that is native to the open woodlands of Japan. It has a slow to moderate growth rate, but can eventually reach the size of a small tree (15 feet). It is hardy in Zones 4-7, making it an ideal selection for New England gardens. It has a graceful, layered branch pattern, with leaves clustered at the branch tips. The leaves are elliptical, 2 -3” long with lightly serrated edges. The green to bluish-green summer foliage turns to show-stopping shades of brilliant red, orange and yellow in fall. When grown from seed, the color of autumn foliage can vary from plant to plant. This leads some gardeners to purchase Enkianthus in fall or to select cultivars that are vegetatively propagated and known for fall color.

The flowers are unusual, with a delicate appearance that is best appreciated when viewed up close. Bloom time is late spring/early summer; each flower is one-third to one-half inch long. The flowers hang in clusters near the branch tips and are creamy white accented with red veins. They are followed by dangling, brownish-yellow seed capsules, that add an element of beauty to the winter landscape when frosted with a light coating of snow.

Hybridizers have introduced new cultivars with an increased range of flower color, including ‘Renoir’, which has yellow flowers with pink lobes, and the white flowered ‘Albiflorus’. Flowers may also be pink to red, such as the dark-pink flowered ‘Showy Lantern’, selected by the late Ed Mezzit of Weston Nurseries, and the red-flowered ‘Red Bells’.

The Redvein Enkianthus prefers cultural conditions similar to those required by rhododendrons: acidic soil, with good drainage and moderate moisture. It is useful in the woodland garden, in the shrub border or as a specimen plant. It prefers part shade to full sun. It is considered pest- and disease-free, and is rarely severely damaged by deer.

My own Enkianthus is now nearly ten feet tall and has been pruned to function as a small, multi-trunked tree in my landscape. It is planted next to my deck, where we can enjoy its dainty spring-time flowers at eye-level. Right now, in early March, its pointy little buds are yellow at the base and rosy pink at the tips, and give the sense that spring is just around the corner. In summer, it receives about six hours of midday sun, and is underplanted with daylilies, Hosta ‘Sun Power’ , Heuchera ‘Mint Frost’, Carex ‘Evergold’, and a smattering of self-sowing, white-flowered Nicotiana.

The Redvein Enkianthus is easily grown and deserves to be more widely used in the home landscape. It is a valued addition to the woodland garden and is also ideal for small gardens, due to its slow growth rate. It offers four-season interest with its delicate spring flowers, rich green summer foliage, brilliant autumn color, and the winter prominence of its seed capsules and smooth gray-brown bark. I wouldn’t be without this graceful, distinctive shrub.

By Joan Butler