In the Garden:
Pacific Northwest
August, 2012
Regional Report

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The flowers on this pieris remind me of lily-of-the-valley. A densely growing evergreen, this shrub is a workhorse in my landscape.

Pieris: A Utility Player on My Team

A few years ago I was on a quest to find the perfect shrub for a background planting. I wanted a low-maintenance evergreen with seasonal interest that would be equally happy in sun or shade. As I scoured local nurseries for just the right plant, I kept finding pieris. There was no single feature that attracted me most, but the combination of all its attributes convinced me that pieris was just the right plant for my garden.

Pieris, also called andromeda, is a medium-tall shrub that, once established, requires little care. Pruning isn't necessary, but it doesn't really mind being pruned, so you can do as you like with this shrub. As with other members of the heath family (Ericaceae), which includes rhododendrons and azaleas, pieris requires an acidic, humusy soil, and an organic mulch to keep the roots happy.

The rich green, glossy leaves are attractive all year round, and in early spring it boasts a profusion of small, cup-shaped flowers which begin deep pink and change to a creamy white color as they mature. The flowers hang in clusters like strings of beads. As a bonus, the flowers of some cultivars emit a light, fruity fragrance. The new leaves emerge a bronze-red color and gradually turn bright green by mid-summer. In winter the flower buds, which range in color from green to dark red, look striking against the leaves.

Growing Conditions
Pieris performs well in full shade to full sun and will bloom beautifully in either. To provide woodland-like acidic soil conditions, I work 2 to 3 inches of peat into the top foot of soil when I plant. In humus-poor soils, you can add another 2 to 3 inches of peat. Other organic materials, such as composted leaves or pine needles, will also help loosen the soil.

For quick establishment, I plant pieris in the spring or fall, when the weather is cool and rainfall is abundant. After removing the plant from its pot, I tease out about an inch of roots all around the rootball with my fingers to encourage roots to grow out into the surrounding soil. I set the plant in the ground at the same depth it was growing in the nursery pot. To allow for their mature size, I space my plants 6 feet apart. (Dwarf cultivars can be planted closer.)

Since pieris are shallow-rooted, mulching is really important. I rake wood chips or pine needles over the soil surface, but any organic mulch material will do. Other than removing dead or broken stems and branches, it's not necessary to prune pieris. The natural form is attractive, but you can certainly prune them back if they overgrow their spots in the landscape. I prune mine back every three years to encourage lots of healthy new growth.

Pieris Choices
Pieris japonica cultivars begin blooming around mid-March. 'Valley Valentine' is one of the earliest bloomers. It has glossy, dark green leaves that contrast with very elegant white flowers. This compact low-grower reaches about 3 feet tall and bears a profusion of pink and white flowers that appear deep pink from a distance.

The bright red new leaves of 'Mountain Fire' provide a fiery display for several weeks in the springtime. The flowers are white and less showy than those of other pieris, but this cultivar takes more sun and is quite vigorous. It grows into a 5-foot-tall plant with a pleasing asymmetrical shape. 'Scarlet O'Hara', a similar cultivar, has showier flowers but does not hold its fiery color quite as long.

I've combined pieris with enkianthus and leucothoe, which are also white-flowering shrubs. Even during the quiet months from midsummer through early fall, the graceful form of pieris creates a cool, serene feeling among the deep shadows of our native hemlocks and Douglas firs.

If you're looking for an abundant display of colorful foliage and the bonus of fragrant springtime flowers, one of the many cultivars of Pieris japonica is sure to be a delightful addition to your garden.

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