December’s star plant: Skimmia japonica

Plants can be victims of their own success. This is the case with Skimmia japonica: it’s easy to grow and uncomplaining, so it’s planted everywhere. It’s a bit of a ‘carpark’ plant – you might see it outside Tesco’s with plastic bags and old beer cans wedged inside it.

However, that’s no reason to reject it. Skimmia japonica is an excellent garden plant which really pulls its weight. And in December, when there’s so little else to look at, it comes into its own.

And it’s not just looks: Skimmia flowers have a lovely fragrance, as do their leaves. Skimmia japonica is in the same family as orange and lemon trees, and many plants in this family have leaves rich in essential oils. Brush past a Skimmia or crush the leaves – it’s a sort of citrus-menthol combination.

But first, a little bit of Biology …

In order to grow Skimmia japonica successfully, and to choose the right plant, you need to know a little bit about (ahem) plant sex. Make sure the kids are out of the room and read on…

You may know that all flowers reproduce using male and female parts. The pollen from the male part must reach the female part for the seeds and berries to develop. Most flowering plants have male and female parts in the same flower. However, Skimmia japonica is unusual because it has male and female flowers on separate plants, and only the female plants produce berries.

The male and female plants have different names so, for example, Skimmia japonica ‘Pabella’ is female, while ‘Rubella’ is male.

When it comes to the flowers, Skimmias are like peacocks: the males have all the bling! So if you want pretty flowers, choose a male variety. Male plants produce brightly coloured buds, which persist throughout winter, and this is their real glory and why they’re so useful for winter interest. Female plants have tiny, insignificant flowers – their beauty is in the glossy red berries which, again, will last throughout the winter months.

Skimmia japonica "Rubella"
Skimmia japonica “Rubella” – male Skimmia in flower

Where to grow Skimmia japonica

The great thing with Skimmia japonica is that it will grow happily in shade, where many other plants won’t thrive. Don’t grow it in full sun, as this might scorch the leaves, so make sure that there is shade for at least some of the day. The other thing to bear in mind is that Skimmia japonica prefers a neutral to acid soil. In my neck of the woods it’s quite common to see sickly-looking Skimmias with yellow leaves and often this is because they are in a soil that’s too alkaline, or chalky.

Other than that, once you’ve planted your Skimmia japonica there’s not much else to do, apart from a regular mulch and feed (all plants, however tough, need a bit of love). Skimmias don’t need pruning and will reach an eventual size of about 1 – 1.5 metres and then stop growing. Skimmia japonica specimens growing in the National Trust’s Bodnant Gardens, are 40-50 years old are still only around 1.5 metres tall.

How to choose a Skimmia

Now I have to admit I prefer the male Skimmia. I just think they’re a bit more elegant. If you’re looking for wildlife value, the male flowers will be attractive to bees and other beneficial insects. The berries of female Skimmias last throughout the winter, which is great aesthetically, but a good indication they’re not very tasty for birds. If you want berries to feed the birds then other plants are better.

Honey bee on male Skimmia
Honey bee on male Skimmia

A good choice is Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’. It’s got the AGM award from the Royal Horticultural Society, which means it’s a strong and reliable cultivar. I think the contrast of the dark, wine-red buds against the green leaves is stunning. If you’ve got the space, pairing ‘Rubella’ with a white-budded cultivar can be very effective: ‘Snow White’ has pure white buds. (The image at the top of this post shows ‘Snow White’ and ‘Rubella’ in my garden). ‘Fragrans’, (as you might guess from the name) is known for its fragrance, and also has the AGM, but the buds are slightly pinkish and so is less of a contrast. Another recommended white flowering variety is the hybrid Skimmia x confusa ‘Key Green’, though again, the buds are slightly pinkish.

Female Skimmias:

If you prefer a female plant, remember it needs a male companion in order to produce berries. If you live in a town, there’s a fair chance of a male plant within travelling distance for a bee, so you probably don’t need to worry about this.

Skimmia japonica ‘Nymans’ is the only female Skimmia to be awarded the AGM. However, ‘Pabella’ is a new, and highly recommended cultivar – particularly for its deep, glossy red berries. If you want something a bit different, try a white-berried variety such as ‘Wakehurst White’.

Skimmia japonica "Pabella"
Skimmia japonica “Pabella” – a female plant

Self-fertile Skimmias:

If you can’t decide between flowers and berries, you can have both. Skimmia japonica subsp. Reevesiana and Skimmia japonica ‘Temptation’ are self-fertile, ie they have both flowers and berries on the same plant. However, I haven’t grown them myself, and reviews about them are mixed.

So, next time you see that neglected Skimmia in the corner of a carpark, why not stop and take another look? What do you think? Should we find space in our gardens for Skimmias?

Photo attributions:

cc-by-sa/2.0 – Skimmia japonica ‘Pabella’ by Jonathan Billinger –
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