You would think that horticulture folks would be happy in March when everyone’s “wearin’ the green.” After all, green is our color — the color of chlorophyll found in plant leaves that allows the life-giving process of photosynthesis to happen. But in this month of green beer and shamrocks, I started thinking about all of the great plants we grow that mask their green behind other pigments such as the red and burgundy Japanese maples, ‘Summer Chocolate’ mimosa and Cordyline ‘Red Star’ with its striking form.
Japanese maples have few rivals when it comes to interesting form and foliage color. Burgundy selections like ‘Tamukeyama,’ ‘Bloodgood,’ ‘Emperor I’ and ‘Crimson Queen’ are as popular as a pint o’ Guinness on St. Paddy’s Day. Cut-leaf selections like ‘Tamukeyama’ will anchor those specimen locations in the landscape and draw almost as much attention as the ladies of Mardi Gras. Add some low-voltage, uplighting and they will continue to shine even after the sun goes down.
To grow Japanese maples well you’ll need well-drained soil that has been amended with organic matter and bright light. If it’s possible find a location that is protected from the boiling hot early afternoon summer sun. But, don’t fall for the misguided notion that these trees grow better in lots of shade.
Perhaps in a mistimed nod to the Irish, the leaves of these Japanese maples turn greener as the season progresses. The trees add extra chlorophyll in an attempt to make it through our summer of warm nights. So, don’t be too disappointed when they lose the vibrant color of early spring.
Bucking the trend of going green into the summer is ‘Summer Chocolate’ mimosa. Yes, this is a selection of that weedy, small tree you see with pink flowers in June that’s as common as hangovers on March 18. While the flowers of ‘Summer Chocolate’ look pretty much like every other mimosa, the foliage emerges burgundy with a green tint and develops more rich color as the heat builds.
Growing mimosa won’t tax your horticultural skills. Just about any soil works as long as it’s not too wet. Unfortunately, ‘Summer Chocolate’ is susceptible to the soil-borne fusarium wilt that eventually kills every mimosa. Like other short-lived plants such as ‘Bradford’ flowering pear, enjoy it while you can but don’t get too attached.
Cordyline is sometimes called New Zealand cabbage palm even though it isn’t a palm. Grown for its strap-like, tropical-looking leaves, cordyline makes a bold textural statement through every gardening season. Selections like ‘Red Star’ and ‘Red Sensation’ add the beautiful burgundy color that’s as noticeable as drunken karaoke but not nearly as irritating.
You won’t be able to grow cordyline too much further north and west of the Wilmington area. Mine seem to do pretty well in a protected part of the garden, but cold hardiness is a concern. They work well as container plants that can be moved inside in colder climates.
If your plants aren’t wearing their true colors, look no further than N.C State Extension for unbiased help. Check out our website, ces.ncsu.edu, where you can submit questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Cooperative Extension center by phone: If you live in Pender County, call 910-259-1238; in New Hanover County, call 910-798-7660; in Brunswick County call 910-253-2610. You can also find great local information at nhcarboretum.com and on Facebook. Just search for “New Hanover County Arboretum.”
Al Hight is the extension director for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in New Hanover County. Contact him at 910-798-7666.