Plant Profiles: Enkianthus
Drawing by Rene Eisenbart
Send me Kansas
Narrow, upright, lightly textured spring-blooming deciduous shrub; 3 to 15 feet
Light shade; even moisture; rich, well-drained soil
Will not tolerate drying out
Site at the edge of a path so you can observe flowers close up
I've been watching my parents' Enkianthus die for the last three years. It has not been a pretty sight. I keep thinking back to the plant I'd given them, a beautifully proportioned little shrub, with tiers of foliage ringing with rosy-belled blossoms and a bonfire of color in fall.
Alas, all that remain are a lot of twigs and a couple of leaves. Consider this, then, a eulogy; next time I'm back East visiting my parents, it's time for the old heave-ho. One thing enkianthus can't ever forgive is a lack of water, and one thing my dad never had much time for was the long, saturating soak.
The plant they've got is the unimproved species, E. campanulatus, which I'd hoped might reach eight feet in their lifetime but has barely inched past three feet. Related to the rhododendron, red-vein enkianthus has an elegant, upright habit of layered branches with tufted foliage crowded at the ends of the stems. A friends of mine likens it to the particularly gorgeous Rhododendron quinquefolium, an elegant creature whose leaves are in whorls of five. High praise indeed for the enkianthus, which is a whole lot easier to find, and at a fraction of the cost.
The flowers on the straight species are perhaps the least interesting (I am a good daughter, honest; I just couldn't find any cool cultivars at the time) -- pendulous, creamy vanilla cups streaked red. The petals of the flower swell at the base, a subtle but telling feature, since Enkianthus can be translated as "pregnant flower."
Richer-veined varieties such as 'Red Bells' pack a little more oomph than does the species. So does the solid-pink form, 'Showy Lantern,' while the maroon-budded 'Sikokianus,' with shrimp-pink veins on red-brick flowers, makes a particularly impressive show.
If you're after red, though, I've seen pictures of a species that seems to blow other forms out of the water. E. cernuus var. rubens (syn. E. cernuus var. masudae f. rubens) has long, nodding clusters of saturated red blossoms, more easily believable as clusters of fruit than as flowers.
Personally, I like my enkianthius white because they read so well from a distance. The species of the above form, E. cernuus, is a pretty eight- to ten-foot flowering shrub with bright, showy racemes. My parents' plant comes in a pale form, too: E. campanulatus 'Albiflorus', with greenish-white, lily-of-the-valley cups. But the finest snowy-white display has got to belong to the incredibly refined species E. perulatus, which slowly tops out at about five to six feet high and wide, and possesses all the grace and intrigue of a dwarf elm. But hey, why stop there? In a genus that's known for stunning autumn color, I've heard enticing rumors that the foliage of this species is the most brilliantly red of them all.