Rhododendrons, azaleas, weigela, late lilacs – all showing off

— Photo by Susan Safford

This has been a wonderful year for rhododendrons, the plants appearing to be at capacity for numbers of flower trusses. Normally, or formerly, at this time of year, the massive mounds of magenta Rhododendron roseum elegans, and other rhododendrons here are practically throbbing with the humming and buzzing of bumblebees, too many to count, working over the flowers. This year, I am sad and a little anxious, as it is very quiet out there around the plants. I count no more than about four large and four small bumblebees on any plant.


Many extremely showy plants are blooming now: rhododendrons, azaleas, doublefile viburnums, weigela, and late lilacs are just some. They often overwhelm other, less conspicuous plants, sucking the air right out of the scenery with their mounds and splashes of extraordinary color and scent.

Blooming simultaneously are aronias, in woods and more natural areas of gardens. When we went hunting for aronia to photograph at Polly Hill Arboretum, the plant was barely noticeable, seriously outflanked by the flamboyantly baby-girl pink azalea “Eva Mayo” next to it.

So why write about such a nonentity when there are all these high-octane examples of garden excitement blazing away? The answer to the immediate question might be that good garden and landscape design utilizes much filler material.

If each and every plant in the landscape were a specimen and planted for wow effect, the result would be a staccato hodge-podge. There would be “one of each,” with no flow or unity in the design. Material such as aronia, or other characteristically Vineyard plants, and, yes, lawn, marry gardens with their settings.

From Wikipedia: “The aronias [in the Rosaceae] are attractive ornamental plants for gardens. They are naturally understory and woodland edge plants, and grow well when planted under trees. Aronias are resistant to drought, insects, pollution, and disease. Several cultivars have been developed for garden planting, including A. arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’, selected for its striking fall leaf color. A. melanocarpa ‘Viking’ and ‘Nero’ were selected for larger fruit suitable for jam-making, and because they are self-fertile only one plant is needed to produce fruit.

“Juice from these berries is astringent and not sweet, but high in vitamin C and antioxidants. The berries can be used to make wine, jam, syrup, juice, soft spreads, and tea. In The U.S. aronia berries are used in mass-marketed juice blends for color and marketed for their antioxidant properties. In Poland they are dried to make an herbal tea. The tea is usually a blend with other more flavorful ingredients including blackcurrant. Aronia is also used as a flavoring or colorant for beverages or yogurts. The red aronia’s fruit is more palatable and can be eaten raw. It has a sweeter flavor than the black species and is used to make jam or pemmican.”

Native plants need not be used formulaically in the landscape, or because some imperative has come down from the native plant commissariat. They deserve wider use because they are part of where we live and have intrinsic worth. The slender, unassuming aronias are such plants, kind to birds and pollinators, and taking up little space where they occur. Further reflection shows that most gardens benefit from native plants, multi-season appeal, background planting, and plantings supporting living creatures sharing our environment. Aronias fulfill these requirements, in addition to those showy splashes of autumn foliage brilliance.

Hollies’ appearance?

Many evergreen hollies shed their older, yellowed leaves at this time of year. Now is their autumn, part of the trees’ natural cycle. They look definitely untidy for a period until the tree drops them. Rake up the fallen leaves for sanitation and freedom from prickly leaf matter underfoot. Providing such good cover for birds, as hollies do, inevitably means that the seeds in bird droppings will proliferate beneath these trees. Weed around the bases, checking especially for vining weeds, such as bittersweet or Japanese honeysuckle, that are concealed by the evergreen foliage. A light top dressing and mulch should help keep hollies doing well through the summer, but keep mulch away from trunks.

Protecting water resources

The May issue of the UMass Extension gardeners’ newsletter suggests avoiding unnecessary brushcutting and clearing of slope, to prevent run-off and soil movement, i.e., erosion. Soil particles, as well as fertilizer and pesticide residues, can make their way into water bodies through runoff of storm water, melting snow, and over-watering. Reduce the presence of bare soil, especially on sloping land. Establish vegetation on slopes.

If you are proximate to a wetland, pond, stream, or estuary keep high maintenance gardens at a distance from it. Reduce fertilizer and pesticide pollution through conscientious application of products, or eliminate them altogether. Surplus nutrients contaminate drinking water and contribute to rapid algal growth in water bodies, with negative impacts on harvestable resources, such as scallops and larval fish.


A recent introduction, sweet alyssum “Snow Princess,” has won me over. A sterile hybrid, it makes a great improvement over the old standby Lobularias. “Snow Princess” is cold tolerant and heat tolerant. Plants are vigorous so pair them with other vigorous plants.

“Snow Princess” is a “heavy drinker” and will prefer evenly moist soil. It is quick to show drought stress, but should bounce back quickly once re-hydrated. In a hanging basket you should be prepared to water often, maybe more than once a day during warm weather. Plants are easier to keep moist when planted in large planters. Due to water needs “Snow Princess” is ideal for use in larger planters. While plants shouldn’t need to be trimmed back, if they are looking less than their best give them a trim.