The height of the spring show in the garden passes quickly in the south. The bursts of color from the Dogwoods, Azaleas, Magnolias, and Redbuds fade away to a quiescent period before the bold colors of the summer flowering plants appear. During this seemingly 'green spell', however, there are many plants that offer delicate, more subtle attractions than the flamboyant shows of the early spring bloomers. One such interesting plant is Enkianthus campanulatus, the Redvein Enkianthus.
While Redvein Enkianthus is not a very common plant, it is a lovely one with elegant, subdued character and four-season interest for the garden. Redvein Enkianthus is a deciduous, semi-evergreen shrub, or small tree, remaining at 5-8 feet in height in colder areas but reaching to 12 feet here in the southeast. Foliage is a glossy blue-green to olive color and remains neat and handsome from spring to fall. In autumn, the leaves can turn a vibrant red-orange or clear yellow, this trait is somewhat variable so look for plants in the fall with good foliar color. In spring, this relative of Blueberries is hung with clusters of small, bell-shaped flowers as the foliage is emerging. The individual flowers are not very showy because they are only about 1/3" long, but the flowers are borne in clusters which are quite beautiful as they are scattered throughout the plant. Redvein Enkianthus in bloom looks as if it had been decorated for a gathering of bell-ringers with clusters of miniature, creamy-white bells. Upon close inspection, the flowers reveal red or pink veining near the edges of each blossom - a very arresting trait. The flowers mature into wonderful red fruit that sit upright on the branches like hundreds of Easter eggs. The habit of Redvein Enkianthus is as handsome as the flowers, foliage, and fruit, with upright branching wrapped in an attractive, warm brown bark.
While it is native to Japan, Redvein Enkianthus is well adapted to many sites in the southeastern US. It is a member of the same botanical family as Rhododendron, Azalea, and Blueberry and, like those plants, prefers moist, well-drained, acidic soils. However, it is tolerant of other landscape conditions and has performed well at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) in soils with significant amounts of clay and only moderate drainage. Redvein Enkianthus will do well in full sun or partial shade and has no serious pest or disease problems. It is completely hardy in the southeastern US from the coast to the mountains. This plant can be readily propagated from seed which has no pre-germination requirements and can be sown directly onto moist peat-moss. Softwood cuttings taken in summer root readily under mist but the cuttings may not survive through the following winter. Commercial propagation of named cultivars is frequently done using modern tissue culture techniques to avoid this problem.
There are a number of named cultivars of Redvein Enkianthus which have been selected for exceptional flower and foliage color. 'Albiflorus' has clear white flowers with no colored venation, and orange-red fall color. The botanical variety palibini has very red flowers. The blossoms of 'Red Bells' are deep red near the tips and the venation of the flowers is a darker red than usual. 'Renoir' is a yellow-flowered form with pink tips from the Arnold Arboretum. 'Showy Lantern', from Weston Nurseries, has large pink flowers with excellent, carmine fall color and exceptionally dense branching. 'Sikokianus' (sometimes seen as a botanical form, sikokianus) has probably the darkest flowers with deep wine colored buds that open into dark bronze-red flowers with lighter pink venation.
In addtion to the cultivars of Redvein Enkianthus, there are also several other lesser known species of Enkianthus that offer unique character for the landscape. Enkianthus cernuus is a somewhat lower growing shrub with pure white, bell-shaped flowers borne in clusters of 10-12 individual blooms. The botanical variety E. cernuus var. rubens is a striking, deep red flowered form. E. deflexus is native to China and attains heights of up to 20 feet. Flowers are larger and showier than other species but it is not quite as hardy as others and may suffer damage in the mountains. E. perulatus, White Enkianthus, flowers before the leaves are out with large, creamy flowers each 1/2" wide. It remains lower growing than other Enkianthus reaching only 4-6 feet in height with a rounded habit. E. serrulatus is an uncommon species with the largest flowers of the genus. The waxy, translucent ivory blooms are 1/2 - 3/4" across and dangle from the bare branches like so many celestial bells. While E. serrulatus is perhaps the most beautiful, it is also the earliest to bloom of all the Enkianthus making it most susceptible to spring frost damage.
Any of the Enkianthus are excellent plants used in small groupings around a patio or as specimens near a walk or seating area. Their unique charms combine with adaptable landscape character to create an elegant statement in the garden. At The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), many of the different forms of Enkianthus can be seen in the Shade House, the Southall Memorial Garden and the White Garden. Visit The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum) to experience the special qualities of these plants.