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The Many Faces of Ninebark

Ninebark, great Physocarpus you should be considering.

Contributors: Dothe Hviid

Ninebark, great Physocarpus you should be considering.

   
Ninebark by Dorthe Hviid

Like the proverbial frog morphing into a prince after being kissed by the princess, the humble Physocarpus has lately been transformed into a major player thanks to the work of intrepid hybridizers. Until recently Physocarpus opulifolius or common ninebark was relegated to the back of the old-fashioned shrub border or more likely didn't make an appearance in the garden at all. Yes, it has white flowers in spring, but they are pretty unremarkable against green leaves. Yes, it has bark exfoliating in long strips exposing chocolate brown inner bark, but this feature is mostly hidden by the foliage. It is also extremely hardy (zones 3-8), but it's tall and rangy as it quickly reaches 6-10 feet.

Not so many years ago the great plantsman--and my favorite woody plants critic--Michael Dirr didn't mince words after looking over the collection of ninebarks at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum: "I still came away with the opinion that about anything is better than a Physocarpus."

Since then hybridizers throughout the U.S. and Europe have been busy at work coming up with some great cultivars of this former wallflower, and they have turned it into a best-selling shrub. With the enormous appetite among gardeners for plants with fine contrasting foliage, it was history waiting to happen.

Discovering 'Diabolo'

"Physocarpus has been grown in Europe for conservation purposes providing food and cover for wildlife for some time," explains Tim Wood, product development and marketing manager for Spring Meadow Nursery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "A grower there was growing acres and acres of it and one plant came up purple-leaved." The plant was set aside but nothing was done with it until the German grower, Gunter Kordes, came by and noticed it.

Summer WIne by Tim WoodGunter Kordes knew a good thing when he saw it. He put the plant into production, and the result was Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diabolo' with dark burgundy-purple leaves. Where summers are very hot it looses some of its color at the height of the season, but in the temperate summers of the Berkshires it retains its color well. In midspring it blooms with spirea-like white flower clusters that contrast beautifully with the dark foliage. We planted some in The Tatkon Garden on the edge of the parking lot, where they have done very well. Though improved, the shrub is still pretty lanky so use it as a background plant.

Tim Wood knew what to do about that. "We made an intentional cross between Physocarpus opulifolius 'Diabolo' and Physocarpus opulifolius var. nanus, the dwarf form of ninebark. That's how I came up with 'Summer Wine,' " he tells me. "It flushes out orange and matures to a reddish burgundy, and it's only 5-6 feet tall so it's a better scale for most gardens." A strong grower but never leggy, 'Summer Wine' has a dense compact habit. Used next to yellow and bright green plants or against a light background it'll knock off your horticultural socks. "It's our number-one seller," says Tim proudly.

Golden Developments

Meanwhile in Holland, Darthizer Nursery crossed the older, yellow-leaved Physocarpus opulifolius 'Luteus' with Physocarpus opulifolius var. nanus and came up with 'Dart's Gold.' North Dakota State University developed 'Nugget' from a similar cross. 'Dart's Gold' and 'Nugget' are both around 5 feet tall and tolerate part shade. 'Nugget' is considered the better of the two, as it is more uniform and well branched. Here at the Garden we planted five 'Nugget' ninebarks at the rear of the de Gersdorff Perennial Garden this spring.

One of my current favorites is the cross between 'Diabolo' and 'Dart's Gold' that resulted in Physocarpus opulifolius 'Coppertina.' Hybridized by Jean Paul Divasse at Minier in France, this hybrid leafs with spectacular copper-colored foliage in spring that gradually transforms to a dark red. It still has the lankyness of 'Diabolo' but I'd happily put up with that for the incredible foliage of 'Coppertina.' We will be planting two of these down at the Barn Cottage Garden this spring at the bottom of the driveway that runs past the Center House, if you would like to see them for yourself.

Another cross between 'Diabolo' and 'Dart's Gold' has produced a brand new hybrid called 'Center Glow.' Broken Arrow Nursery touts it as having "bright burgundy-red leaves highlighted by a golden-orange base maturing to a rich dark burgundy." I inquired if Tim Wood was familiar with it. "It's not that different from 'Summer Wine,' " he acknowledged. "In spring when it flushes out the center of the leaf is brighter, but it's very subtle."

I also asked Tim Wood if he is aware of other new cultivars on the horizon. "Hybridizers are still working on Physocarpus, but I don't know of any specific cultivars in the works," he admitted. "We are still working on Physocarpus, too. We are looking primarily for smaller plants with interesting combinations of leaf color. That's the direction that we think is important."


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