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Skimmia japonica • Japanese Skimmia

Gardeners, I may say from personal experience, are no less prone to idiotic ideas than the rest of the populace. Wouldn’t it be grand, I thought recently, to have a Japanese woodland in the front yard? The fact that Boston is not Japan, and that the front yard is already pretty well planted up, did not obtrude into this process. Ultimately, faced with the grim realities of limited space and increasingly skittish neighbors, the plans for bamboo groves and copses of Japanese maples had to be given up. But not, I am happy to report, the skimmias, of which there are now eight, lining a path on either side in charming fashion, like a family of happy green turtles. It is not a Japanese woodland, but it is enough. For now.

Skimmia japonica is the species you are most likely to find in nurseries and mail-order catalogs, and since it is as beautiful as any other member of the genus, there is no need to go whoring after novelties. Each shrub forms a neat, domelike mound of dark green, glossy foliage that grows slowly to about three to four feet high and as much across. (In mild parts of the country, it can easily exceed these dimensions.) The essential fact to bear in mind is that the species is dioecious—that is, male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Thus, if you want to get a late-fall or winter crop of the conspicuous red fruits—and you assuredly do—then you will need at least one male plant to pollinate your females. Actually, the male plants would be worth having even if they weren’t needed for, ahem, stud duty, because their flower clusters, which begin forming in the fall, are even showier than those of the females, with deep red buds that open in early spring to small white flowers. They also carry the bonus of a delicious fragrance, which is almost undetectable in the females. If you can bring yourself to sacrifice a few branches, both the female berry clusters and the male flower buds, taken with some of the foliage, make excellent evergreenery for decorating the house during the holidays.

Though I wouldn’t characterize S. japonica as fussy, it does need shade (sun scorches the foliage), which can be quite deep, provided the site in which the shrubs are planted isn’t inordinately dry and rooty. The soil should also be on the acid side of neutral (below pH 7.0), and supplemental water may be needed during dry spells. A mulch of shredded oak leaves or pinestraw is a good idea, in any event. Also, the hotter and muggier the climate, the more susceptible S. japonica becomes to spider mite damage, which means, unfortunately, that it’s not a good choice for the lower South. If, however, you can provide the conditions it needs, I’d be surprised if this trim, elegant woodlander didn’t quickly rise to the top of your list of favorites.

The Essentials

  • Type of plant: evergreen shrub
  • Family: Rutaceae (citrus family)
  • Origin: Japan, Korea, and China
  • Height/spread: both 3–4 ft. (exceptionally to 6 ft.)
  • Habit: mounded, domelike
  • Leaves: elliptic-oblong, simple, dark glossy green above, yellow green beneath, 2–5 in. long
  • Flowers: 1/3 in. across, creamy white, opening from reddish-maroon buds, borne in panicles 2 in. long and wide; male flowers larger and more fragrant
  • Bloom period: March–April
  • Fruits: bright red, 1/3 in. across, ripening in October and held through winter, borne only on female plants
  • Hardiness: USDA Zones 6–9; Sunset Zones 4–9, 14–22, 31, 32, 34
  • Propagation: by seed (cleaned of pulp) or cuttings taken in fall and treated with rooting hormone

A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 98, no. 8 (November/December 2001).