Richard Bogren, Kirk-Ballard, Heather
LSU AgCenter Horticulturist
(06/07/19) Distylium is my new favorite evergreen shrub for foundation plantings. When I am asked what to use to replace aging and diseased Indian hawthorn or littleleaf boxwood planted around homes as foundation shrub plantings I always, always, always go back to distylium. Not because there are no other suitable replacements, but because I love it so much.
Distylium is a native of China and a member of the witch hazel family. The cultivars used today are a cross between two species: Distylium racemosum with dark green foliage and Distylium myricoides that adds the interesting growth architecture. It has gorgeous blue-green foliage on wide-spreading, horizontally arching branches that grow in layers, giving it a swirling appearance. It’s unlike any growth I’ve seen in an evergreen shrub. And I get excited just talking about it.
It made its debut in the late 1990s and early 2000s and is still a well-kept secret of the landscape and home garden. But I see it replacing hawthorns, yews, nandinas and hollies in the future as this plant gains recognition.
It is Distylium racemosum that lends its hardy genetics to the hybrid. They are cold-hardy to plant hardiness Zone 6b. They also are heat and drought tolerant, can grow in either full sun or shade and display no major insect or disease problems. Distylium myricoides provides the amazing growth qualities and leaf features that provide its notable aesthetics. It brings the arching, layered branching to the variety, really mixing things up.
Several cultivars available now include Blue Cascade, Cinnamon Girl, Coppertone, Emerald Heights, Linebacker and Vintage Jade, each with its own unique characteristics. Names give away the color hues. They are all adaptable to the Louisiana landscape. They produce red-maroon flowers in late to early spring, but flowers are not showy. Distyliums require minimal attention. They are just an easy-care foundation evergreen shrub.
Here are brief descriptions of each variety. Each has a unique growth habit that separates one from the other, and some are more compact, while others are much larger. Overall, most grow 4 feet tall by 8 feet wide and are excellent for hedge selections because they tolerate heavy pruning. They hold beautiful foliage all year and do well in USDA hardiness zones 7-9, but some go as low as Zone 6b.
Blue Cascade has a more spreading growth habit with layered branches with newer foliage being a purple to bronze color and then maturing to a blue-green hue that they will hold year-round. It grows to 4 feet high by 8 feet wide and performs best in USDA hardiness zones 7-9.
Cinnamon Girl, my favorite so far, was introduced in 2016 and has smaller leaves, making it a great littleleaf boxwood and dwarf yaupon replacement. New growth is red-purple that matures to blue-green foliage and has a spreading-swirling habit that can be massed as a compact hedge or tall ground cover. It grows 2 to 3 feet tall by 4 to 6 feet wide and is the most cold-hardy, surviving to Zone 6b. Gorgeous, gorgeous.
Coppertone is another spreading-mounding growth habit that is more compact with copper-bronze-red new growth that also matures to blue-green and grows 3 to 4 feet tall by 4 feet wide in Zones 7-9. Another great selection.
Emerald Heights has a rounded and spreading growth habit with dark green foliage. Plants are larger than other cultivars as the name implies at 5 to 6 feet tall by 8 to 9 feet wide with quick growth adapted to Zones 7-9.
Linebacker has an upright-dense growth habit that makes it the best cultivar to use for hedging and screening. The new foliage is red-orange that will mature to shiny dark green that it keeps year round. It is large, again, as the name implies, and is barrel shaped. It will grow 8 to 10 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide in Zones 7-9.
Vintage Jade displays the most unique layered branching that gives a swirling appearance that I just love. Its foliage is a more dark green and has red flowers in early spring. It grows 3 to 4 feet tall by 8 to 10 feet wide. It will cover a large area and is more cold-hardy at Zones 6b-9. It’s just a real stud when it comes to covering a lot of ground and space.
I’m excited to see this plant hit the landscapes as people begin to take notice of its interesting features. A great replacement for old and diseased foundation plants, I predict it will become trendy over the next few years. And rightfully so, as it an easy-care plant with lots of pizazz.
Compact Cinnamon Girl distylium. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Distylium has a beautiful growth habit of arching branches. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter
Distylium makes a gorgeous hedge. Photo by Heather Kirk-Ballard/LSU AgCenter