When is a shrub a tree? And why are they so useful? Ruth Goudy explains
Shrubs or trees?
THERE is a group of plants I call ‘the inbetweeners’. They are the plants that are neither tree nor shrub, but have qualities of both and they are invaluable when it comes to giving a garden shape.
I employed this term when a customer approached asking for a small tree that he would like to buy for his mother’s garden, as a present. As I talked through all the trees that we recommend for small gardens he kept saying ‘no that will be too big’. Perhaps rather slow on the uptake, I finally grasped that he was looking for a plant that had the ‘feeling’ of being a tree, but which was not technically a tree at all. In the end he chose an Acer Palmatum that was grafted onto a stem so that it would only grow to about five foot high.
Grafting is what clever plantspeople do when they take the stem of one plant, cut the top and then grow another shrub onto it. I have never done this and it seems to me a cross between superglue and magic, but I have seen the results and it really works. We have several favourite specimens of grafting at the nursery. The Salix Hakuro Nishiki is one of them. It has beautiful pink and white, flamingolike foliage that many mistake for flowers when it comes into the leaf in the spring.
Another example is flowering cherry grafted on a stem to look like a standard. By doing this at a low height it gives the bush the look of a ball of blossom in the spring and an attractive green structure through the summer. Both these plants are perfect in a central bed in a lawn or, due to their size, they can be kept in a pot on a patio or doorstep.
Of course there are horticultural definitions of tree and shrub and, being a book lover, I took great pleasure in researching these. It is remarkably straightforward. Both are ‘woody’ plants, both have roots, but a tree has a main trunk while shrubs are multi-stemmed, often branching near the ground and are typically not as tall as trees. I feel that, rather like the English language, these definitions are absolutely crying out for exceptions to be made and contradictions to be pointed out.
Instead of being pedantic though, I thought I would share with you some larger plants that we believe give the sense of having a tree in your garden yet on a smaller scale. These all have their own characteristics that bring an impression of landscape and airiness and sometimes shade to the garden.
The first, Cornus, is one of my all time favourites. This is not to be confused with the Cornus that we grow for the bright red, orange and yellow stems in winter. This is Cornus Kousa Chinensis, or another favourite, Cornus Controversa Variegata. What I like about these plants is their feeling of placement. They have layered, open branches that means they sit well in a border or on their own in a lawn.
With layered, open branches Cornus sits well in a border or on a lawn
The daintily flowered Amelanchier