Seeing green in yard all year long Evergreen shrubs add color to winter landscape

Pyracanthus cultivar ‘Victory’ will grow 20 feet tall, but it can be pruned and kept shorter. Here, it is espaliered against a west-facing wall.

We are fortunate to have many broad-leaved evergreen shrubs in the Lowcountry landscape. These ornamental and native shrubs keep their leaves during our relatively mild winters.

Some people like to see the leafless branches of deciduous shrubs and trees, called the “bones” of the garden, in winter. Winter is a good time to view the branch structure and overall shape of woody ornamentals, so any corrective pruning can be done in late February.

Others, and I put myself in this category, prefer evergreen plants to those that lose their leaves. Shiny, green leaves brighten up a garden during the cloudy, gray days of the winter season.

“Evergreen” is sometimes used to designate conifers, woody plants with needles in place of leaves that are green year round.

“Evergreen,” however, really includes both conifers and broad-leaved plants. The following list of easy-to-grow evergreens does not include conifers, since I haven’t grown many.

Southern yew (Podocarpus macrophyllus), sometimes called Japanese yew, is a narrow-leaved, drought- and shade-tolerant Southern stalwart. It is one of my favorite evergreen plants. Variety ‘Maki’ grows 8 to 10 feet tall and looks exactly like the full-size type, which can reach 25 feet or more. It also can be grown in a pot. ‘Pringle’s Dwarf’ stays 3 to 4 feet high and is a bit darker green.

Blue aphids that appear infrequently in spring are easily managed with a spray of insecticidal soap. The leaves may yellow a bit because of mid-day sun, prolonged drought or soil that is too alkaline. A tablespoon or two of aluminum sulfate sprinkled on the soil under the branches will cure the latter.

Variegated false holly (Osmanthus heterophyllus) cultivar ‘Goshiki’ is a short, slow-growing shrub that attracts attention with the cream, green and rose coloration of its new growth. It needs full to part sun to stay bushy and thick; if it gets too much shade, the holly-shaped leaves drop off.

Banana shrub (Magnolia figo, often still called by its former name Michelia figo) is a medium-size evergreen, magnolia-type shrub. The name comes from the scent of the small, cream-colored flowers that appear in spring. (The scent reminds me of the artificial banana flavoring, isoamyl acetate, we made in high school chemistry class.) The flower buds set in August on new growth, so do any pruning in late spring. Banana shrub likes part shade and normal water, meaning it will need some irrigation during dry spells.

Pyracanthus is Greek for fire thorn, and anyone who has encountered one of the piecing thorns knows how it got this name. Pyracanthus blooms creamy white in April on old wood, and the berries turn red-orange in October. Fire thorn is an evergreen climber. The commonly available cultivar is ‘Victory,’ which “The Southern Living Gardening Book” (Oxmoor House, 2004) rightly describes as “unruly.”

Wooly aphids are an occasional problem in fall; they can be knocked back with malathion insecticide.

Of the many hollies planted in the Lowcountry, dwarf Burford holly (Ilex cornuta) is one of the toughest. The tiny, white flowers attract swarms of honeybees, so wait until after flowering to prune in the spring. Like most hollies, dwarf Burford prefers full to part sun. If it is planted against a house, mealybugs or scale may attack the bottom of the leaves on the shady side of the plant. Horticultural oil or acephate can be used to manage these insects.

Red is my favorite color, so one of my favorite flowering shrubs is bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) with its carmine red tufted flowers that attract hummingbirds. Bottlebrush is native to Australia, which has several different shrubs with bottlebrush-shaped flowers. This large shrub (10 to 15 feet tall) is very drought-tolerant, so it doesn’t need watering after it has been in the ground a full year.

Unfortunately, the last two winters have been a bit too cold for many bottlebrushes in the Lowcountry. My established plant that was 10 feet tall froze back to a 3-foot high trunk.

It resprouted, however, and I am looking forward to blooms again next spring. Dwarf bottlebrush is more cold sensitive than full-size cultivars, and the flowers are a deeper red.

These are some of the many evergreen shrubs that can be enjoyed year-round in the Lowcountry.

Anthony Keinath is professor of plant pathology at the Clemson Coastal Research & Education Center in Charleston. His expertise is in diseases of vegetables. He is also an avid gardener. Contact him at tknth@clemson.edu