The architectural qualities of ornamental plants are often the least advertised or described. 'Showiness' is usually the first characteristic that is extolled, (generally 'showiness' translates to gaudiness of bloom) - with bright spring color being the primary requirement for the average successful ornamental plant in the US. Fall color then becomes the second consideration with a plant's other ornamental traits listed, if at all, down in the fine print along with any cultural considerations. But gardens rely upon the architectural characteristics of plants as much, if not more than, any colorful displays they provide, to create interesting, inviting outdoor spaces.
Consider the garden sculpture into which mature Japanese maples metamorphose after leaf-fall. Recall the grace weeping plants bring to a landscape, both in summer and winter, and the fascination of the bare contorted branches of plants like contorted Mulberry, Morus australis 'Unryo', and the well known Harry Lauder's Walkingstick, Corylus avellana 'Contorta'. The inspiration of the impossibly spreading limbs of White oak, Quercus alba , and the clean, skyward spire of Western red cedar, Thuja plicata, are great gifts in the garden, representing impeccable architecture of the highest order.
The architecture of ornamental plants can be used to add phenomenal dimension to the garden using plants of all types, sizes and scales, from mosses to towering conifers. On first consideration, extremes of size and shape may seem the obvious choices to add architectural landscape character, but extremes of any type are usually the most challenging characters to work with (both human and horticultural...). Instead, plants of moderate size that offer interesting growth habit and form, in combination with other ornamental qualities, like handsome flowers and fall color, often make the most likely candidates for the creation of enticing gardens in modern settings.
Unfortunately, finding manageable-sized, architectural plants with uniquely attractive flowers and striking fall color, that also perform well in low-maintenance landscapes is a major challenge. While there are a multitude of such plants in the world, they are not among the plants getting the hard sell at most garden centers - why? - because the customer is always right, the customer is always in the garden center in the spring, and the customer therefore always wants Kwanzan cherries and azaleas (perfectly fine plants of course but not the only ornamentals in the universe). We the gardening customers must start asking garden centers and nurseries for available plant alternatives that offer architectural quality as well as 'showiness', and we can make an excellent start by asking for Cyrilla racemiflora, Leatherwood.
Leatherwood is a deciduous to semi-evergreen large shub or small tree. It is native to the swamps and wet places of the southeastern US and further south into South America. It will generally reach 12 - 20 feet in height with a nearly equal spread. The habit is somewhat loose and rounded with fascinating, open-spreading, twisted branching of architectural quality.
In addition to its lovely form, Cyrilla offers interesting, delicately beautiful flowers in early summer. Pendulous clusters of small, creamy flowers are borne in rings around the base of the current year's new vegetative growth. The appealing whorls of flowers dangle lightly like the lace of demure, open-capped, wedding veils.
The evergreen character of Leatherwood's leaves depends upon the degree of cold it is exposed to. While the plant itself is completely hardy throughout the southeast US, it may hold its leaves through the winter in the warmer central areas, will likely lose them in the foothills, and may suffer some non-lethal winter damage in severe mountain areas. But it is no loss if Cyrilla loses its foliage because, in the process, it develops some of the most striking fall color to be found in the south. The small, oval leaves are emerald green through the growing season but, in the fall, turn brilliant canary marbled with scarlet and orange. This bold fall foliage hung on Leatherwood's unique branching creates autumnal art that appears carved from the precious stone of some rare quarry by a subterranean sculptor.
While Leatherwood is found in swamps in nature, in the landscape it prefers moist, well-drained, acid soils but is tolerant of a range of conditions and, especially once established, is an exceptionally tough plant. At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), Leatherwood has performed well in Piedmont clay soils thriving through droughts and wet years. It does best in full sun or light shade and has no significant pest or disease problems. Leatherwood can be readily propagated from summer hardwood cuttings treated with rooting promoter and rooted under mist, or from directly sown seed. It is most likely to be found available from a native plant and/or mail-order specialty nursery.
The exceptional garden character of Cyrilla racemiflora makes it an excellent choice to include sculptural, floral and foliar displays in the landscape in the form of one worthy plant. As a player in a mixed border, a specimen plant with room to spread, or a star in a walled garden, Leatherwood brings the essential qualities of architecture to the garden. Ask your favorite garden center proprietors if they have seen the garden architecture of Cyrilla racemiflora, then take them on a visit to The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) Southall Garden, to show them the unparalleled work of nature's architects carved in the branches of Leatherwood.