Versatile Pittosporums

By Andy McIndoe

Pittosporums are some of the most versatile evergreen shrubs in our gardens today.

Once considered too tender for all but the mildest temperate regions they are now used extensively in the southern half of the UK and in the US zones 8-11.They grow well in urban gardens and those by the coast, providing everything from compact subjects for pots and containers to small trees.

Pittosporums respond well to pruning and trimming and the larger growing varieties make good subjects for hedges and screening. Their small leaves and fine stems do not show the unsightly signs of clipping that spoil the appearance of shrubs with larger leaves.

Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Golf Ball'

Most pittosporums grown in gardens are cultivars of Pittosporum tenuifolium. The species has small, shining, bright green leaves with waved edges carried on dark, almost black stems. Tiny chocolate flowers in the leaf axils in spring have a strong, sweet fragrance. Pittosporum tenuifolium grows quickly with a bushy, upright habit. It makes a good screening shrub, an excellent hedge and also a fine specimen which can be trained as a small evergreen tree. The foliage is excellent for cutting for floral decoration.

Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Elizabeth’ is just one of the variegated alternatives to the plain green species. The leaves are larger and longer, variegated with grey-green and cream and edged with pink. The colour intensifies in winter. It has an upright habit and makes a fine, flame-shaped specimen; good to plant with purple foliage subjects.

Pittosporum 'Elizabeth'

Pittosporum ‘Garnettii’ is similar, but with a rounded, oval leaf and more open habit. The colour is brighter and it grows quickly to form a large broad column. A hybrid pittosporum it is as hardy as the straight P. tenuifolium cultivars.

Pittosporum 'Garnettii'

The lightest and brightest of all, Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Irene Patterson’, has almost white leaves suffused with grey green. It is one of the brightest foliage plants in any garden and grows more slowly due to the extent of its variegation.Especially popular with flower arrangers, regular cutting helps to control its overall size and it could easily be maintained to under 2 metres in height.

Pittosporum 'Irene Patterson'

Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Queen’ has a more defined variegation, but similarly bright coloured foliage, with small, neat leaves. The habit is neat and compact and it makes an excellent specimen perfect to repeat in a planting scheme.Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Variegatum’ is similar in habit; possibly broader and bushier. The leaves are waved with a strong creamy-white variegation. It is an excellent subject for a pot or container.

Pittosporum tenuifolium 'Variegatum'
Pittosporum 'Silver Queen'

The popularity of the dwarf varieties of Pittosporum tenuifolium has increased with the spread of box blight and the demise of Buxus sempervirens as a garden staple in many areas. Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’ is an obvious alternative with its rounded, compact habit.

Pittosporum tenuifolium

It responds well to trimming and has a bright, cheerful appearance. The leaves are less waved than many other cultivars but the fine stems are still black. It is the perfect alternative to the traditional box ball when kept lightly clipped. It is perfect for use as structure in a border and works well alongside Hebe sutherlandii or Euonymus japonicus ‘Microphyllus’. It is also ideal for a pot in sun or shade and suits contemporary or traditional settings.

Pittosporum 'Golf Ball'

The popularity of Pittosporum ‘Golf Ball’ has encouraged the introduction of many other compact cultivars including the variegated Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Ball’. This seems to be just as hardy and works well with silver foliage plants and lavender.It is also a useful contrast to dark greens with its grey green leaves edged with white on fine dark stems. The growth habit is similar to ‘Golf Ball’, but somewhat slower.

Pittosporum 'Silver Ball'

Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tom Thumb’ is no newcomer to gardens and is the best known of very few purple foliage evergreens.Compact and rounded in habit it rarely gets to more than 90cm (3ft) in height and spread and can be clipped into a tighter ball. The purple black, shining leaves intensify in colour in winter and make a bold statement in the winter garden with colourful cornus stems and the contrasting texture of conifers.It is a useful small structure evergreen that is ideal to repeat in beds and borders.

Pittosporum 'Tom Thumb'

There are several varieties of pittosporum with even smaller leaves. These are even lighter and more translucent in habit; a useful contrast to heavier subjects. Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Silver Sheen’ has tiny peridot-green leaves on ascending wiry black stems.

Pittosporum 'Silver Sheen'

Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Tandara Gold’ is more open in habit with tiny gold and green leaves. The most subtle of variegations and nothing like other yellow variegated shrubs.

Pittosporum 'Tandara Gold'

Pittosporum tobira is a familiar sight in Mediterranean countries where it is used for hedging, screening and street planting. The leathery leaves are carried in whorls on stout stems.Fragrant creamy flowers appear in loose clusters at the tips of the shoots. It has proved to be remarkably hardy and is often more weather resistant than Pittosporum tenuifolium. It grows well in sun and shade both in well-drained soil or in a large pot.

Pittosporum tobira

A good choice for a strong, architectural effect in a courtyard or on a balcony. The dwarf compact Pittosporum tobira ‘Nanum’ is very dwarf and grows into a low, rounded mound with interesting leaf formation. Another possible alternative to buxus it is popular with designers for its strong architectural appearance.

Andy McIndoe

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