Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wintercreeper - An Under-Rated Evergreen Ground Cover

Wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei) is an under-rated, versatile broadleaf evergreen that grows in Zones 5-9. Depending on the cultivar, this ornamental shrub attains 2’ to 4’ in height and up to 5’ in width.

Euonymus is native to China, in a wetter climate than the United States typically. It naturally prefers moist, well-drained soil conditions in partial shade. But it is a hardy plant, tolerating full sun, poor soils with a wide pH range in environments given to heat, drought, and pollution. In other words, it will probably grow in your yard.

Euonymus fortunei is semi-evergreen to evergreen with unremarkable but pleasantly lustrous, dark green 1” to 3” long leaves. The most common cultivars are more remarkable, variegated with shades of white or gold around each leaf’s margin. Depending on the cultivar, leaves will fade to colors including red, purple, bronze, gray or pink. Because some are semi-evergreen, they keep their leaves in fall but may lose a few during winter. Euonymus can produce light yellow or green blooms in June or July, but you’ll have to look hard for them if they’re there at all.

Euonymus, whose name translates as “good name”, is found in two different forms: groundcover or shrub. Both are widely planted. I’ve seen them used for foundation and specimen plants, low hedges, edging, mass plantings, and even as climbers on trees and trellises. The foliage has a fairly thick density. Both forms have green stems that tan with age, but ground cover varieties’ grow outward, whereas shrub varieties’ grow vertically. Take note that regardless of it being a ground cover or a shrub, if the plant is placed near a vertical structure (brick wall, chain-link fence, tree, etc.) the stems will grip it and, like a short clinging vine, climb it. Either form grows moderately fast when it’s young, but slows with maturity. If you’re in a hurry for it to mature you should prune it frequently. Pruning in the spring encourages it to grow quickly.

Euonymus can be propagated by rooted stem cuttings, but they’re always available in containers. Plant in spring or fall. But if you can’t get around to planting until summer, that’s fine; just be sure you irrigate it frequently. Upon planting, spread mulch around it to control weeds and preserve moisture. To prevent new roots from freezing the first winter, particularly with the ‘Coloratus’ variety, mulch to 4" depth.

Euonymus is a great, easy and carefree plant until it gets old. With age or lack of vigor, it becomes more susceptible to crown gall and euonymus scale. Both afflictions are primarily cosmetic. Scale is the most common of the two. However, these problems don't progress quickly. You’ll have time to catch problems and begin treatment.

Scale is an insect that is easily treated with organic pesticides. Scale easy to spot because the stem and undersides of leaves will look like they're covered in powder or teeny-tiny turtle shells. The powder actually consists of hundreds of tiny white structures that house juice sucking bugs. Scale is a serious problem if found in a Euonymus mass planting because it spreads to other plants. As with all plants, keep your eyes open to potential problems.

Popular Euonymus fortunei varieties include:
  • E. f. ‘Acutus’. The best Euonymus for a fast growing groundcover. Its deep green 1”-2” long egg-shaped leaves bronze in the winter. If you want it to stay at its mature 2’ height keep it away from a supporting structure and plant about a foot apart.
  • E. f. 'Coloratus'. This woody groundcover, most frequently used for mass planting, grows 1' tall if not near a vertical structure. It will climb if the opportunity presents itself. Solid green foliage turns a very attractive red or heavy bronze in winter. Plant 8” to 12” apart.
  • E. f. 'Gracilis'. (See the photo above.) Its half inch deep green ovoid leaves have a creamy edges which develop a burgundy tint in winter. This shrub grows about 1’ in height and 1.5’ feet in width in Zones 5-9 in full sun or shade. Plant at least 18” apart.
  • E. f. 'Harlequin'. Perfect for mass planting as a ground cover. Variegated, evergreen foliage spaced compactly displays a burgundy hue in winter. Spreads horizontally, more or less, until it meets an obstacle, then may climb to 36" or more.
  • E. f. 'Kewensis'. A very low growing (1" - 3” tall) variety that forms a thick dense mat and spreads slowly but indefinitely. Grows best in Zones 5-8 in sun or shade. Plant up to 3’ apart. Pea-sized leaves with the occasional white flower in June. It is great as a ground cover in small spaces, and is wonderful for bonsai.
Euonymus will be an asset to your garden. Some cultivars display beautiful fall color. It grows in virtually any soil condition as long as the soil is moist and well drained. It has few pests, and they're easily remedied. It has proven to be a beautiful, hardy, “plant it and forget it” shrub or ground cover all over the United States.

Return to Wintercreeper at goGardenNow.com.

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