Skimmia japonica: Shade Plant Sublime

When we left northern California and returned to the east coast in the early 1980’s we bought wooded acreage in Southampton N.Y., built a house and started a garden.  Actually, 14 lilac bushes went in before the house was finished.  I couldn’t wait.

Lilacs are my favorite flowers.  They need a cold spell in order to bloom, so for the twelve years we lived in La La Land, zone 9, I was lilac-deprived.  (We did have one small shrub in a pot that we fed ice cubes all winter while we sang, “New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town”.  It rewarded us with two or three flowers every year.)

California nurseries tried to sell us on “California lilacs,” a/k/a Ceanothus, which we scornfully rejected. They looked nothing like real lilacs. ( Of course I would now kill to have a glorious, sumptuous, blue flowering Ceanothus in the garden. Figures, doesn’t it? )  But I digress.

After the house was built we lined one side of a shady path with a group of the woody ornamental shrub Skimmia japonica.  A friend of a friend was experimenting with them and urged us to try some.  At the time I hadn’t heard of  Skimmia, no one I knew had them, and they weren’t available at local or mail-order nurseries.  Now, 25 years later, what a difference.  Skimmia is everyone’s darling, and rightfully so.

Through lectures and meetings I have certainly done my part in spreading the word about its many virtues and happily take the opportunity to do so here:

Skimmia is a reliable, prolific bloomer, even as a young plant, and even in shade, which is its preferred location.  Lovely creamy-white flowers open in April, releasing their delicious fragrance into the air.  Large reddish flower buds are produced in early autumn and carry over winter, so the shrubs appear to be flowering in the snow.  And in late summer, female plants produce clusters of fat, fire-engine-red berries — which the birds ignore until spring — so that highly decorative flowers and fruit adorn the shrubs at the same time.

Skimmia japonica is dioecious and requires both male and female plants for fruit.  I don’t grow the self-fertilizing variety, Skimmia reevesiana. The jury is out on its performance: reviews are mixed, some good, some not.

No doubt about Skimmia japonica’s garden worthiness.  In addition to fabulous flowers and fruit, the shrub’s magnolia-like, thick textured, dark green leaves are evergreen, and if rubbed or bruised emit a strong herbal scent that repels deer.  Fragrant flowers, evergreen foliage, decorative fruit — and deer resistant! To my mind, as close to perfect as a plant can get.

And yet, with all its superlative qualities, Skimmia isn’t a prima donna requiring constant pampering.  Far from it.  But there are a few essential culture requirements:  moist, acid, well-drained organic soil, and most important, SHADE.

Skimmia is winter hardy here on Long Island, zone 7, and despite periods of horrific and loony weather we have never lost a plant.  Zone 6 may be somewhat iffy but given a bit of protection surely worth a try. (Sort of the reverse of our lilac in a pot with ice cubes.)

One other thing. My shrubs are over 6 feet tall.  The plants I now see for sale and in gardens mature at 2 or 3 feet tops.  The current garden trend does seem to favor dwarf plants.

Large or small, Skimmia japonica is an outstanding plant of enduring merit.  One of the best.


Skimmia japonica copyright 2013  -  Lois Sheinfeld

Skimmia japonica   —   copyright 2013 – Lois Sheinfeld



Note: Setting The Record Straight.   Growing along the same path as Skimmia japonica, Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’ has been in dazzling bloom since mid-January.

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Orange Peel'   --  copyright 2013  -  Lois Sheinfeld

Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Orange Peel’ —
copyright 2013 – Lois Sheinfeld

Because of its sweet fragrance, I chose Orange Peel over the similar orange-flowered Witch Hazel, H. x intermedia ‘Jelena’.  While Jelena is a looker, her flowers have no scent. ( See the authoritative reference in the field, Chris Lane’s 2005 Royal Horticultural Society Plant Collector GuideWitch Hazels. )

I’m surprised that garden writers continue to wax eloquent about Jelena’s wonderful fragrance. In The King and I, the King of Siam said it best: “Is a puzzlement!”