Redvein Enkianthus: A Non-native Tree for the Garden in Tune with Nature

Two non-native ornamental plants that could be found growing in the same garden, Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) and redvein enkianthus (Enkianthus campanulatus), were introduced to Western horticulture in the 1870’s.  Both became popular garden plants throughout New England, the shrubby barberry for its showy flowers and fruits, as well as the autumn foliage of some cultivars, and the enkianthus, which can be grown as a large shrub or small tree, for the same attributes.  If you consider the thorny stems of the berberis to be an attractive winter feature, as some garden writers do, and the persistent seed capsules and tiered branching habit of the enkianthus likewise, both of these woody species might make the rather short list, “Plants for All Seasons”.

Indeed, Marjorie and I recently wrote an article for Yankee Magazine (to be published this coming spring) titled “A Garden for all Seasons”.  Enkianthus campanulatus is on our list, but Berberis thunbergii, in any of its many cultivated forms, is not.  In natural areas throughout New England, invasive B. thunbergii is becoming the dominant understory shrub species.  It is an insidious invasion.  As barberry displaces native shrub species, it changes soil chemistry, thus reducing the potential for regeneration of native species.  The end result is reduction in the diversity of wildlife habitat, including suitable nesting sites for birds.  For over a decade now, Japanese barberry has been recognized as an invasive plant species that will, in a matter of a few years, eliminate native plant species in a wide range of habitats, and no environmentally-sensitive gardener would have it in the garden, its seeds dispersed into natural areas by birds.

Redvein enkianthus, on the other hand, is not on anyone’s invasive species list.  Instead, it is recommended by University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension and by Massachusetts’ nurseries as a replacement for the non-native invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus), a shrub valued by home owners solely for its bright red fall foliage.  Any gardener familiar with enkianthus knows that neither burning bush nor Japanese barberry can hold a candle to the the brilliant red and gold of enkianthus’ autumn leaves.

For over a decade, a redvein enkianthus, carefully pruned as a small tree, has graced Marjorie’s Garden.   It stands about 8 feet tall with four main trunks and may eventually grow to 12 feet in height, perfect for a small garden tree.  Marjorie’s pruning over the years highlights the tree’s layered branching habit, a striking feature in winter when the branches are traced with snow.

Enkianthus in winter

Enkianthus in winter

Equally striking are the mahogany-brown seed capsules that persist through winter clustered at the tip of each naked twig.  Light feathery snows that trace the branches also build white caps atop these clusters, a delightful scene in the relatively barren January garden.

Our redvein enkianthus flowers in late May or early June, depending on the weather, its clusters of creamy yellow bells with deep red veins hanging below the whorl of leaves at each branch tip.  The flowers are slightly larger that those of highbush blueberry, a close relative, and

The drooping bell-shaped flowers of enkianthus are a favorite nectar source for bumblebees.

The drooping bell-shaped flowers of enkianthus are a favorite nectar source for bumblebees.

have the same drooping habit.  And like the blossoms of the highbush blueberries in Marjorie’s Garden, enkianthus flowers are a hit among the garden’s bumblebees.

After flowering, we watch dry seed capsules develop until they ripen in late summer.  What birds or rodents eat the seeds after they are dispersed remains a mystery, but we have never had a seedling pop up in the garden or in the nearby woods, so someone must eat them, or they are not viable.

In autumn the leaves on our enkianthus turn a mix of brilliant red and gold.  Fall color is variable within the species, with

Enkianthus autumn foliage

Enkianthus autumn foliage

some plants turning all red or all yellow.  The leaves on our tree tend to first turn to a bright golden yellow, some leaves still showing a little green, then, a few days later, those golden leaves are infused with red.  A few more days and the ground around the little tree is littered with colorful leaves.

Every plant in the garden does not have to be native in order to be ecologically functional.  Native bumblebees have no problem using enkianthus flowers as a nectar source, no doubt because of the similarity between enkianthus and native blueberry blossoms.  And enkianthus comes highly recommended as a suitable replacement for invasive threats such as Japanese barberry and burning bush.  It deserves a place on any gardener’s list of “Plants for All Seasons”.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: