Gardeners and landscapers are always on the lookout for new and exciting plant species to spice up their yards. When someone asks me for a plant suggestion, I usually start off by asking what they are looking for. It’s usually the same answer: they want something evergreen, low maintenance, drought and heat tolerant, can handle poor soils and soggy soils, insect and disease resistant and something with attractive flowers.
Of course, I usually follow this answer with an explanation that few plants fulfill all of those strict categories. However, a recently introduced shrub may just check all of those boxes.
Distylium hybrids are shrubs developed by retired University of Georgia horticulture professor Dr. Michael Dirr. They are developed from crossing Isu trees native to China and Japan. They are members of the witch hazel family, and a cousin to the common witch hazel native to the eastern U.S.
Since their introduction, Distyliums have been shown to be very tough plants. They can take poor and soggy soil conditions. They are disease and insect resistant, as well as resistant to drought and heat. They are also considered low maintenance plants and require little pruning. These evergreens produce a small reddish flower in late winter or early spring, and although they produce some small seeds, they have not yet shown to be invasive. Most varieties like full to partial sun exposure.
Because of their toughness, Distyliums are considered good alternatives to traditional foundation shrubs, such as Indian hawthorn, juniper, boxwoods, hollies and laurels.
‘Vintage Jade’ is the most compact variety, with a mature spread of 3 feet tall and 4 feet wide. It flowers in February and March. This variety is recommended for borders, walkways, shorter foundation plantings and as a short groundcover on a sloped bank.
Coppertone and Blue Cascade are two mid-sized varieties recommended for low-growing hedges and foundation plantings. Both have a spread of around 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide. They have red flowers that bloom in February and March.
If you’d prefer something that can act as a privacy hedge or an upright growing specimen plant, take a look at the Emerald Heights and Linebacker varieties of Distylium. Emerald Heights has a 6 by 6 foot spread and flowers in February and March like the other Distyliums. For a taller option, the Linebacker hybrid has a more compact but upright growth. It starts with reddish leaves that turn to a dark green when mature. It reaches a mature spread of 8-10 feet tall and 6-8 feet wide.
Two of the newest Distylium varieties on the market are Cinnamon Girl and Swing Low. Both of these are low-growing, with a mature height of 2-3 feet tall. Cinnamon Girl is a good boxwood alternative with plum-purple leaves on new growth and is suited for landscapes in low-lying areas, since it is the most cold-hardy Distylium available. Swing Low has a mature spread of 4-6 feet wide and has a more horizontal growth habit that Cinnamon girl, making it great for mass plantings of shrubs that can grow together.
If you have some tricky spaces in your garden that need filling, or you are just tired of your current plants, give the Distylium hybrids a chance. Vetted by the UGA research gardens in Athens, it was recently recognized as a 2016 Georgia Gold Medal plant. These plants were put through their paces and certified to be good performers in Georgia.