We tend to think of evergreens in a narrow way. Pictures of conifers, dwarf and giant, come to mind. There are great big cedars, Christmas trees, pines, hollies, ivies, yew, clipped into fancy shapes. Hedges generally and obviously are created using evergreens, from the already mentioned yew to the dreaded Leyland cypress and neat, low cut box. There is also fast growing privet and even faster growing lonicera. We remember old fashioned conifer beds and the huge, dark, shade-creating groves of evergreens that were supposed to stay neat, small and manageable.
There is however, so much more to evergreens than these old reliables – and sometime not so reliables. If you want plants that will earn their keep in a foliar kind of way all years round, look a bit further. You will be surprised how wide the choice of evergreens can be and how very colourful the choice can be.
I am a big fan of pittosporum. I love everything about this fabulous gang of evergreens. I particularly love the one I cannot grow, Pittosporum tobira, a tender glory of a plant. Whenever I get the chance to see it in places like Muckross Park in Kerry or Fota in Cork, I take the chance to visit a plant of it, and bury my head into its fabulous flowers. It has long glossy, cigar shaped dark leaves that are the perfect foil to the little creamy-lemon white flowers. These flowers smell like tiny lilies.
If I could only have just one tree or shrub in my life, it would be this super star, but I cannot and would not even try to grow it because cold Kilkenny would be the death of it.
I can have many other pittosporums however. Although many midland pittosporums suffered death in the big winters of 2010 and 2011, those were unusual winters and generally, pittos fare well enough here.
Pittosporum tenuifolium is the most often seen. This most basic variety grows to be a conical tall shrub that makes a presence of itself from a distance. Its little leaves are about 2 cm or 1 inch long. They are a mid green and slightly frilled. The plant looks great all year round and is an excellent foliage plant for flower arrangers too. (Also, the conical shape lends itself to being draped in lights at Christmas)
Pittosporum ‘Irene Paterson’ is a slightly grander variety of the ordinary pitto. It also has frilled leaves but the main feature is the apple-cream variegated leaves. They will light up the dullest dark day. It is not as big as the plainer pitto, topping out at about three metres tall and two wide.
There are also gold variegated types, the most well known being ‘Limelight’, which has soft yellow centres and dark green edges. ‘Abbostbury Gold’ is another, this time the splashes are pale gold. For those fond of a dark leaf, Pittosporum ‘Tom Thumb’ is an old favourite with the darkest aubergine coloured, shiny leaves. This is a smaller shrub than many of the pittosporum, growing to only about a metre-and-a-half tall.
I wrote that I cannot grow Pittosporum tobira. Instead my chilly garden can manage a Daphne ‘Jacqueline Postil’, another evergreen shrub with scented flowers. Unlike pittosporum, this daphne flowers through the winter months, at a time when much of the garden is dormant and quiet.
Planted near a door, it will give pleasure from late December to the end of February.
When it comes to lower growing plants, there are some evergreen euphorbias so that are quite lovely, changing colour through the year and in so doing, acting like several plants living in the same space. This is particularly good if you have a small garden.
You can find a euphorbia for any situation and in a whole range of colours. There are limes and dark greens, purples and white variegated types. There is one for damp and dry soil, for shade and full sun.
Euphorbias are great catch-all plants.
My favourite is the white variegated Euphorbia ‘Silver Swan’ and Euphorbia characias ‘Wulfenii’, which has lime bracts but dark blue- green leaves. It is great for dry shade incidentally and there are few plants that like those conditions.
If you like your evergreens shiny and dark, look no further than camellias, flowering shrubs with leaves that look like someone just polished them with Mr Sheen. These leaves make camellias almost as impressive without their spectacular flowers as when they are in full bloom. Usually grown as a single specimen or in a shrub border, I recently came across a line of camellias grown as a hedge. They are versatile as well as gorgeous.