Star Gardener: An Overlooked Gem

Nearly every house in East Hampton in the early-20th century had a deutzia with very double white flowers, D. scabra Pride of Rochester
Deutzias seem to be undeservedly out of fashion in East Hampton. Abby Jane Brody

   In today’s popular culture the only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity at all.
That has been the fate of deutzias, June-flowering shrubs related to mock orange. Both members of the Saxifragaceae family seem to be hopelessly out of fashion, and undeservedly so.
   Mock oranges were in almost every yard and were among the first shrubs I bought after purchasing my cottage when I began gardening tentatively in the early 1980s. Their intoxicating fragrance and milk-white flowers stirred visions of romance and wedding bouquets in a young woman’s imagination.
   Similarly, nearly every house in East Hampton in the early-20th century had a deutzia with very double white flowers, D. scabra Pride of Rochester. It is surprising how many remain in overgrown shrubberies in front of venerable houses along village side streets. Flowering at the same time in June as the invasive white multiflora rose, you might not notice the deutzia unless you look closely.
   It is perplexing why in the last 100 years deutzia has gone from being universally admired to the deepest, black eclipse in which most people probably have never heard of it or may be only vaguely aware of the name. Deutzias are easy to grow in sun or partial shade in any soil, don’t seem to be subject to diseases, and have flowers in white, pink, rose, and shades of purple and lavender, mostly in late May and June. While it is true that most deutzia shrubs fade into the background after flowering, that is not a problem. The dark green foliage is a good backdrop to other flowering shrubs or flowers or an excellent support for summer-flowering clematis.
    If anything can bring it back into fashion, it is Deutzia setchuenensis var. corymbiflora. Evoking images of fine old lace, it is covered prolifically with clusters of small, white, star-like flowers in June and July, with recurring blooms throughout the summer. Introduced from China in 1895, I became aware of it only three years ago in Normandy, where it was flowering in many gardens. Fairly slow growing, the plants in France were graceful, maturing to about eight feet high. Returning home I located a shrub at a mail-order nursery, but now it is available locally from Glover Perennials, a wholesale grower on the North Fork.
    Two others also should help bring deutzias in from the cold: D. scabra Variegata and the pink flowering hybrid D. Magicien. D. scabra Variegata is one of the most admired shrubs in my garden, whether in bloom or not. Its canes are upright and arching, with foliage splashed and streaked with white and cream. In May and early June it has pendulous panicles of lightly fragrant white flowers. Some branches would reach six or eight feet high, but I’ve been able to adapt it to its evergreen companions, keeping it lower but still natural looking. It is one of the best deciduous variegated shrubs for lighting up a dark corner of the garden. A Google search turns up a number of reliable online suppliers.
    Magicien may be one of the showiest and easiest of the deutzias to find. It has deep pink flowers edged in white, and lots of them arrayed along the top of its long canes. The weight of the flowers makes the canes arch downward, creating a bold display in June. New upright canes emerge in mahogany after flowering. As with all deutzias, old flowering canes can be removed just after flowering. In Normandy I was told to cut back the canes until just past the lowest flowering stems.
    I was first drawn to deutzias on botanizing trips a dozen years ago to Yunnan and Sichuan, where they grow abundantly on the edges of deciduous forests in a range of what I recorded as melting colors of purple and rose to white. Thus, when I saw a description of a deutzia of unknown species collected from seed from Mount Omei in Sichuan at Woodlanders Nursery in Aiken, S.C., I ordered it to remind me always of a very special place and time. It is very wonderful and fragrant with clusters of opalescent flowers, but not at all like the D. purpurascens that I saw in China. It continues to be offered online by Woodlanders.
    Perhaps the most widely used, but untypical, deutzia in East Coast gardens is the groundcover, D. gracilis Nikko, collected in Japan. It has clusters of small white flowers in May, but its major attribute is its brilliant red foliage in the autumn. Unpruned it can grow to three feet high and about five feet across. However, it is easily maintained as a ground-hugger by removing old canes after blooming. Nikko is excellent at the front of flower borders or even better as an underplanting for deciduous trees and shrubs.