What is this mystery plant?

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 By John Nelson

Gardeners are just like everybody else, except they garden. And being just like everybody else, gardeners go through their various “phases” or “periods.” Some of these phases involve a sort of popularity contest when it comes to certain plants over others. One might think of the tulip craze that gripped Holland in the 1630s.

Closer to home, maybe it’s the widespread planting of Bradford pear trees: beautiful white flowers, and charming autumnal foliage, but Bradford pears are now a scourge on the land, for a variety of reasons, and no serious gardener or landscaper would recommend them. And then, of course, there are red tips.

“Red tips” are plants in the genus Photinia, a member of the rose family, with several evergreen species originating in eastern Asia, these species variously popular in home and urban landscapes. These species look like they might have thorns, but no. The common name comes from the color of the young foliage, which is commonly bright red (depending on the species in question). By far, the most prevalent red tip, and the one that is usually referred to by that common name, has been the species Photinia fraseri, which is actually a hybrid.

It is a fast growing shrub, makes a great screen or hedge, and its clusters of small white flowers and fruits are beautiful, but it has been so overused that it is something of a vegetable bore. Worst of all, P. fraseriis extremely susceptible to “leaf spot” disease, a nasty fungus that eventually kills the entire plant. Some gardeners say that there are two kinds of red tip plants: those with the disease, and those that are not yet infected (other gardeners just call them all “dead tips”). If you have a hedge full of dead red tips, you have a problem.

This week’s mystery plant is a species of Photinia. It has larger, much toothier leaves than those of P. fraseri, and it gets to be a small tree. It also has beautiful flowers (beautiful and stinky, it turns out) and colorful fruits. And, although it is prone to some diseases, it is not nearly as susceptible to leaf spot as P. fraseri. Our mystery plant can’t really be called a red tip, because when its young leaves unroll in the spring, they are a sort of bronze or saffron color — very nice.

This species is a very vigorous one, and sometimes gets a bit uncontrollable, and potentially invasive. If you were interested in growing one of these, you would probably need to give it a lot of room. Many landscapers these days are trying to wean us all away from red tips, whatever Asiatic species of Photiniayou might be thinking of. There are plenty of alternative native woody species that also provide attractive foliage, flowers, and fruits, and which bring good form and interest to the garden.

Clemson University provides a fact sheet on Photinias, this available online at www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/landscape/shrubs/hgic1081.html.


[Answer: “Chinese photinia,” Photinia serratifolia]


John Nelson is the curator of the A C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in the Department of Biological Sciences in Columbia, S.C. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, go to www.herbarium.org or call (803) 777-8196 or email nelson@sc.edu.