Plant Review Cage Match: Kolkwitzia

by Andrew Keys on June 2, 2010

Oh, I see you sitting over there, all smug and thinking you know who’s going to win this one. Well, hold onto your chair.

Kolkwitzia amabilis, the beautybush, is the only old skool foundation shrub I love that came with my house. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the species isn’t more popular today — I’ve only ever seen the cultivar ‘Pink Cloud’ for sale, very little at that. The only reason I can think of is that it doesn’t provide a long season of interest. That’s something we’ve come to demand more of plants, and rightly so, but there are more popular shrubs than I can shake a stick at that don’t provide seasonlong interest. What gives, trade? For some reason beautybush got the ax ’round these parts.

Why am I so keen on a one-season shrub anyway? It’s a good question. For my money, I think beautybush’s great founts of faintly bubble gum-scented pink flowers in spring (blooming now, actually) are hard to beat, I love its height, its vase shape, its peeling bark. From what I understand it grows quickly and works well for screen plantings, reaching monster status relatively quickly. I think you can prune it as much or as little as you want — it may get congested, but it will still bloom and screen just fine. Post-bloom, I think it blends into the tableau, unlike some other one-season shrubs we won’t mention that just sit there looking like butt.

Now, I also love Kolkwitzia Dream Catcher™, a Proven Winners introduction, though I’ve barely had it long enough for it to, um, prove itself a winner. Imagine the beautybush above, but with gold foliage, some tipped in orange, the shadier parts chartreuse. It’s an eye-catcher, that Dream Catcher™. I’ve seen two problems with it: as with many colored-foliage plants, it’s not as vigorous, and contrary to most gold plants, it NEEDS part shade to color correctly — in full sun, the usual spot for species Kolkwitzia, Dream Catcher™ may turn into crispy critters.

This is a PLUS, you say! MORE gold for shade! And yes! You’d be correct! But for some reason, though the species isn’t widely available, the fact that it’s best in sun pervades, and I saw more than one burnt Dream Catcher™ last year as a result.

This is year two for mine, and it was a transplant, so Dream Catcher™ may yet prove me wrong in the question of its vigor. Michelle G. gave it to me because she didn’t like that it grew in a weird zigzaggy way, but I did some selective pruning and guess what? This year we have six tall suckers a foot above the rest. If you want height, prune off that dinky bottom growth after the first year, and be patient!

In short, if you want quick cover for sun, plant the species. (Or ‘Pink Cloud,’ I guess.) If you want great color for shade, plant the cultivar.

Lowdown:

  • COLOR, COLOR, COLOR: For the species, this is limited to spring, when it blooms. Delicate pink. For Dream Catcher™, there’s that plus gold foliage, though mine didn’t bloom this year. Too small, maybe?
  • LIGHT: See above — species in sun, cultivar part shade.
  • WATER: Established Kolkwitzias are drought tolerant plants.
  • LOW MAINTENANCE: Eh… I say it’s up to you. The shrub can get congested and sucker, but it’ll still do its thing, and I don’t think it detracts from its appearance. If you plan not to prune, just be sure to plant it where it can get big.
  • DESIGN TIP: Like Buddleia ‘Black Knight,’ plant it in a spot where you can enjoy that vase shape from above, like near an oft-passed second story window.
  • FAMILY TREE: Kolkwitzia was formerly included in the honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae, but is now a member of the newish, smallish plant family Linnaeaceae. Others include the tiny perennial Linnaea, or Twinflower, and the shrubs Abelia and Dipelta.

Previous post:

Next post: