Thursday, November 19, 2009

Elaeagnus season

The members of the genus Elaeagnus have had a varied history in our gardens, sometimes loved, sometimes loathed. E. umbellata is one of those shrubs which is used in the medians of interstate highways but rarely invited into gardens. E. pungens occasionally finds its way into gardnes, and just as often is eventually evicted. It's one of those plants with some very good qualities, but it is also potentially a rampant grower which, if it's to look at all cultivated, requires frequent attention with the pruning shears.
Lately I've been giving a lot of attention to the selection of an evergreen woody plant for use around the oculus of the pergola. Among the plants considered have been autumn camellias, Hedera helix, Buxus sempervirens 'Graham Blandy', Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil', yews and winter jasmine. Recently I was in another garden where Elaeagnus pungens had been effecitvely domesticated, and that got me thinking about this often overlooked plant. The more I thought about it, the better it seemed.

I headed out to one of the local nurseries the other day to see if one might be available. My timing was perfect: plenty of very handsome pot grown plants of Elaeagnus pungens 'Fruitland' in full bloom were there to tempt me. They were however a bit bigger (and thus more expensive) than I expected, so I kept looking. I didn't find smaller plants, but I did find something else which won me over immediately: Elaeagnus × ebbingei 'Gilt Edge'.

As a rule I'm no friend of variegated plants. The day was overcast, and that might have affected my decision because those plants glowed with an unmistakably sunny cheer. They were in gallon pots, the price was right and two came home with me. In my mind's eye I can see each of them forming one of the wall pannels of the pergola and providing lots of warm color throughout the winter.

The plants of 'Gilt Edge' were not in bloom, so I also bought one of the plants of Elaeagnus pungens 'Fruitland' to have the fragrance immediately. This is a strange fragrance, intense, potent, far reaching on the air: just what I like in my garden.

I'm not sure how hardy 'Gilt Edge' will prove to be: it might come to grief in a bitterly cold winter, and if the plants are not killed outright I'll have to look at sad, browning foliage until new foliage appears on whichever branches have survived. I know something is wrong here: when I look at these newly purchased plants with their clean, lustrous leaves brilliantly splashed with strong yellow, I can't help being aware that this potentially gorgeous plant is not common in our gardens. I know I'm not the first to try it, and I have a hunch I will not be the first to fail with it eventually.
Common names for Elaeagnus are confusing. In English we call them autumn olive, but they are not members of the olive family but rather members of their own family, Elaeagnaceae. In German they are called Ölweide, which I take to mean olive willow or oil willow. Another name sometimes encountered in English language texts is oleaster. This literally means second-rate olive (compare cotoneaster, poetaster and so on). E. umbellatus is sometimes grown for its edible fruit.

In the image above, you can see Elaeagnus × ebbingei 'Gilt Edge' in the foreground and E. pungens 'Fruitland' full of blooms in the background.

No comments: