Distylium was first put into trial plantings in 2006 by Michael Dirr, retired UGA horticulture professor, along with plant professionals Mark Griffith and Jeff Beasley at Plant Introductions Inc. You might have first caught sight of it at the Georgia Master Gardener Annual Conference held in Canton last April, where several examples were among introductions decorating the main stage.
As currently developed, distylium comes in three compact cultivars originating from the parentage of two Isu-trees, Distylium racemosum and D. myricoides. You may never have heard of the Isu tree: it is native to Japan and China, preferring the margins of oak forests. Distyliums belong to the witch hazel family, which you will be familiar with, since common witch hazel is native to the Eastern United States. Unfortunately (for my purpose) it is deciduous — and tall.
But not Dr. Dirr’s. His three cultivars are ‘Vintage Jade,’ ‘Blue Cascade,’ and ‘Emerald Heights,’ and are suggested alternatives for over-used Indian hawthorn, laurels, boxwoods, hollies, ligustrum, junipers and cleyeras. All three cultivars have somewhat leathery dark evergreen leaves that deer don’t like! (Well, on a resistance scale of 1 to 10, they’re an 8.) They grow in full sun to part shade, like acid soil, and are maintenance free, unless you feel obliged to go out and prune. I don’t.
First to be developed, ‘Vintage Jade’ is compact with a low-spreading growth habit, maturing at about 2 feet in height and spreading some 5 to 8 feet, so it makes a great ground cover. I have read that maroon flowers appear in late winter, but I have yet to see mine. I am just happy that distylium is both heat and drought tolerant, pest and disease resistant and thrives in zones 6b to 9. And it doesn’t mind wet feet!
‘Blue Cascade’ is taller, about 3 feet with a spread of 4 feet to 7 feet. New leaves emerge as a bronze-purple-red and then turn to a matt blue-green color at maturity. The plant is compact and dense and has a cascading layered habit. It, too, has the red flowers appearing in leaf axils, typically in February. Its zone span is 7 to 9.
‘Emerald Heights’ is the tallest of the three, somewhat resembling Schpka cherry laurel with its dark green glossy leaves and upright growth habit. This one will reach 5 feet in height with a 5 to 8 feet spread and is also listed for zones 7 to 9.
So I am a much happier camper. I love my ‘Vintage Jade.’ The branches of the shrub have a unique, almost swirling, habit that most people have not seen. It and its brethren are a wonderful addition to the broadleaf evergreens available to us in the South. Now if Dr. Dirr would just get busy and breed some more.
Information about Extension Solutions for Homes and Gardens can be found on the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension website at www.caes.uga.edu/extension/cherokee or by contacting the Cherokee County Extension Office at 100 North St., Suite G21 in Canton at (770) 479-0418. The Georgia Extension Master Gardener Program is a volunteer training program offered through county offices of the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.