When winter arrives, many plants retreat. But common ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 through 8, conceals one of its most attractive features until winter hits. Native to eastern North America from Canada to the Florida panhandle, this tough shrub reveals beautiful peeling bark, which gives rise to its common name. With foliage gone for the season, the bark adds color and texture to winter scenes.
Enjoying Winter Interest
At maturity, ninebark's arching stems rise 10 feet tall and spread 15 feet. Only when winter takes the shrub's foliage can the attractive stems be fully appreciated. Even young stems, tightly covered with reddish-brown bark, stand out against winter grays, especially when rising through a blanket of snow. But it’s the older stems that delight with exfoliating bark that sheds in strips of brown tinged with hints of yellow, orange and red to reveal various shades beneath. These layers -- perhaps nine -- are at their height in winter.
Promoting Attractive Stems
Only ninebark's older stems, 1/2 inch or more in diameter, exfoliate. To experience winter beauty fully, selectively prune in late winter to enhance the shrub's arching form. Wait until spring approaches, then prune before growth begins. Remove up to one-fourth of the stems to promote new growth each year. If the shrub needs thorough rejuvenation -- or you prefer new stems -- cut it back to the ground every few years. Lush foliage results, but this sacrifices blooms and seeds. Ninebark flowers on older stems. When pruning, wear gloves and long sleeves for protection. Always sterilize your pruning blades before and after each cut to prevent the spread of disease.
Enhancing Year-round Health
The most beautiful winter displays come from healthy, vigorous ninebark stems. Add to their attractiveness by keeping the plant in optimal health throughout the year. Very tough and adaptable to nearly every garden situation, ninebark demands little attention other than its basic needs. A location in full sun to part shade with slightly acidic, well-drained soil provides an ideal planting site. Not bothered with any major pests or diseases, ninebark can become susceptible to blackspot in hot, humid climates, especially if grown in tight spaces lacking good air circulation. If stricken, thoroughly dispose of all affected foliage at year's end.
Looking to Seasons Beyond
Though winter reveals hidden attributes, other seasons hold beauty as well. In late spring and early summer, flower clusters open to white with the slightest blush of pink. Reddish-brown fruit soon follows and by autumn, matures to red. Many equally hardy cultivars have been developed to improve on common ninebark's features. Different sizes, including dwarf varieties, and various foliage colors abound. Varieties with leaves of copper, bronze, lime, dark purple, even bicolored effects of yellow and red, are now available, with some displaying outstanding fall color as well. These exotic foliage colors often diminish in high heat and shade.
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