Seductive Skimmia is a festive favourite

Skimmia's berries provide a rare flash of welcome colour in the deep the deep mid-winter, writes John Manley

The Skimmia range has expanded in recent years with many new cultivars. Picture by Wilfried Overwater

IN THE same way there are few notable attractions in December's garden, so too the gardening columnist's choice of subjects is limited at this time of year.

In six months, both the ornamental and edible gardens will be brimming with bright flowers and lush foliage, each plant making a strong case for inclusion on these pages – but for now we must content ourselves with more mundane subject matter.

It's perhaps a little unfair to characterise Skimmia in this way but it's a plant that would barely be noticed in a mixed border at the height of summer.

In the deep mid-winter, however, it is one of the few plants with any colour and is therefore deserving of some attention.

A member of the rue family (Rutaceae), which also includes citrus trees, Skimmia's family resemblance becomes apparent when you crush its leaves, releasing a zesty, fruity aroma. In the wild, Skimmia grows in the forests of China and other parts of Asia such as the Himalayas, so it's accordingly hardy.

The first Skimmia came to Europe in the mid-1800s and found a home in the greenhouses of Kew Gardens. Its name is derived from 'Miyama shikimi', as it's known in Japan.

Skimmia japonica are slow-growing, medium-sized evergreen shrubs that are valued in winter bedding and container displays. The tiny yellow, pink or white flowers would be hard to spot on their own but they come in clusters to ensure they catch the eye.

The strongly scented flowers open in spring and are attractive to bees. The buds for the following year's blooms first appear in August, with the deep green leathery leaves providing a constant backdrop.

At this time of year, however, it's the plant's berries which are the main attraction. They also make a good addition to a festive wreath. The key to getting a good berry display from your Skimmias is sex – between plants, that is.

Most skimmias are what botanists call dioecious, which means the cultivars are either male or female. If you have a sole plant – and it's not one of the available hermaphrodites – then berry output will be limited.

However, if you grow a male and female in proximity, the female will provide you with berries. Very often people purchase a Skimmia that is brimming with berries from a nursery but find in subsequent years, yield is minimal. This is simply because they have previously been surrounded by males and have been quite promiscuous.

However, there is one variety, Skimmia japonica 'Reevsiana' that is self-fertile (monoecious) and does the business all by itself.

The Skimmia range has expanded in recent years with many new cultivars. They vary in terms of the colour of the bud, the leaf colour (green or variegated) and the compactness of the plant.

There are both compact dwarf Skimmias and specimens that have a much larger, looser shape. The most common cultivar of Skimmia japonica is ‘Rubella', with its bright red buds. There are also other red varieties such as ‘Rubesta', ‘Rubinetta' and ‘Red Dwarf'.

Plants with green/white buds are: ‘Finchy', ‘White Globe', ‘White Dwarf', ‘Godries Dwarf Green', and ‘Fragrant Cloud' (scented). Some red berry-bearing Skimmias are: ‘Pabella', ‘Obsession', ‘Veitchii' and ‘Temptation'. Skimmia japonica 'Nymans' carries abundant red berries that last deep into winter.

Skimmias like a shady spot and prefer slightly acidic soil or compost, with the yellowing of leaves indicating that the growing medium isn't acidic enough.

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