Assessing a Neglected Shrub

A situation that could arise in any garden, including your garden: the gardener becomes aware of a shrub that has been neglected and that has outgrown its space and become rather misshapen. In addition, the gardener has lost track of the shrub’s name and can’t locate cultivation notes on the Internet.

I recently had such a challenge in my garden’s Australian bed. While I was not paying attention, a shrub grew to about five feet high and eight feet wide, and began crowding adjacent plants. In addition, it had been produces leaves and flowers at the ends of its branches, so that the interior of the plant consisted of bare branches. Some of those had died back so that lifeless tips of branches appeared among the greenery.

The plant had been in place for a few years, and I could not recall its name.

For the past several years, when I added a plant to the garden, I searched the Internet for a photo, a verbal description, cultivation notes, and any other information of interest, and compiled it into a one-page “fact sheet” to be added to my files. Such searches begin with the plant’s botanical name, which is almost always listed on the plant’s tag or nursery container.

As a result, I had a binder of such information for the plants in the Australian bed. Despite this preparation, I could not identify this plant.

After staring at my files for Australian plants, I realized that one fact sheet described this particular plant quite well, but the accompanying photo showed red flowers. The plant in question has white flowers!

Apparently, I had included a photo of a different cultivar of the plant. I learned that the red-flowered cultivar is more widely used than the white-flowered species in my garden. (The ‘Snow White’ cultivar has double, green-centered blooms, but my plant has single white blooms with unremarkable centers.)

I replaced the photo, and was satisfied that the plant is a Tea Tree or Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium), a member of the Myrtle plant family (Myrtaceae) and a native of Australia and New Zealand. The generic name means slender seeds, and the specific name means broom-like.

Tea Tree or Manuka (Leptospermum scoparium)

I then learned that this plant has several desirable characteristics. It is drought-tolerant, fairly slow-growing, appealing to bees and not appealing to deer. It has fragrant, evergreen foliage and a profusion of small flowers that appear in the late spring and summer, and linger into the fall. Its leaves can be brewed into a fine tea and Manuka honey produced by bees from its flowers has medicinal properties.

On the downside, at maturity this plant can reach ten feet tall and wide, making it too large for my Australian bed.

I considered pruning this shrub to manage its size. My Internet research found advice that the Tea Tree could be pruned after flowering to maintain shape and encourage bushier, more floriferous growth. However, pruning should never cut into bare wood “as new growth is unlikely to sprout.”

This reflects the pruning advice for plants that also flower on the previous year’s growth, including Camellias, Rhododendrons, Lavenders, and several others. This is critical information, because hard pruning of the Tea Tree would leave it looking and performing essentially dead.

While a light pruning after pruning would stimulate next spring’s growth at the ends of branches, there is no opportunity to reduce and maintain this sprawling plant to a more compatible size. If had been grown as a hedge or as a backdrop for the garden, it could have had long-term value in the landscape. In its current stage of growth and its present location, however, it will be an increasing problem.

This assessment of a particular plant recalls a basic guideline for landscape planning: always know a plant’s size at maturity before buying and placing it in the garden.

Great satisfaction can result from a well-placed plant. Conversely, removing a healthy plant leads to regret. From a positive perspective, removing the Tea Tree will eliminate conflict with nearby plants and free space for smaller Australian native plants.

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