PLANT OF THE WEEK #96: Elaeagnus x ebbingei

Elaeagnus x ebbingei is a great big brute of a shrub.  At a maximum of about 5m tall by the same wide, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever want to release it into your garden in an untamed form.  But it’s infinitely tamable, and in restrained form is very useful indeed.

Its stand-out visual quality is its overall impression of silveriness, and where a large silvery hedge is desired, there’s nothing to match it.  I specify ‘impression of silveriness’, as unlike true silvers like many of the wormwoods, for instance, the source of the silver quality of Elaeagnus x ebbingei becomes less and less evident the closer you look at it.  On really close inspection, you’re much more likely to notice the striking cinnamon colour of the stems, and that this same colouring invades the back of each leaf, giving it a slightly golden or bronze sheen, and concentrating as spotting that, in my imagination, at least looks rather unpleasantly like pustules, or glands, across the leaf surface. 

The upper surface of each leaf is spotted in a similar way with silver overlaying rich forest green, such that you feel like you could scratch the silver off to reveal the underlying green.  It turns out that you can’t when the leaves are young, but you can as the leaf ages, and this occurs naturally, so that the upper side of all the older leaves is deep green.

waxy white spots on the upper surface of the leaf, that at this point, you can wipe off or scratch off with your fingernail

This sounds all very confusing, as many things become when you look really closely.  But it’s curious to me how a plant made up of so many non-silver components can, overall, read as silver-ish.

Meanwhile, its stand-out physical quality is its tolerance of a wide range of conditions, including nearly all soil types (but for the waterlogged), full sun through to substantial shade, and extremes of both frost and drought.

All that aside, the reason why this stodgy evergreen has come to seasonal attention is that it is currently – in late autumn – in flower.  Not that you’d know to look at it, as the flowers as hidden deep inside the foliage (unless you’ve recently pruned it hard).  It’s the perfume you notice at first, and it catches me out every time.  At first I think I’m smelling either hyacinths (which would be odd, given the season) or sasanqua camellias.   I invariably look around, vaguely trying to source the scent, and it always takes a while before I track it down to the elaeagnus.  Last week I snapped off a branch and carried it around for a while, regularly tapping into the hyacinth scent.  I kept sniffing it regularly through the next couple of days in a vase indoors, during which time either it, or my nose, morphed to a new place, and I started smelling something altogether more exotic – more like the perfume of Cestrum nocturnum – the kind of scent you’d expect to encounter on an evening walk in a tropical resort.

The flowers are also covered in the same cinnamon coloured spots or glands, but let’s face it, they’re not worth looking at anyway. Their contribution is in the gentle perfume they emit. And note these older leaves, no longer carrying any of the white/silver waxy spots

Elaeagnus x ebbingei is brilliant for a tall hedge of, up to, say, 3m tall.  I don’t know that I’d want to keep it short, though I notice in Michael Cooke’s Disobedient Gardens that he’s used it for hedges at about 1.2m.  In my own garden I’ve used it for large spheres, about 1.6m round.  With all new growth cut off it, it’s a vaguely grey-green shrub, and works in well with the desaturated colours of many Australian natives, or with a Mediterranean plant palette.  Using it in clipped form (which is the only way I’d ever use it), you need to be aware of its growth habit, which, like bay laurel, is to put on great, long, unbranched shoots that bolt right away from the outline you’ve previously cut.  Where possible, I’d always rather use a plant of the growth form of, say, Viburnum tinus for any clipped job, as the new growth is short and dense, so a previously cut shape just gets fuzzy and diffuse if it’s not cut for a season.  Over the same period, an uncut Elaeagnus x ebbingei will lose any perception of its original and intended shape, and quite possibly double in size. An offsetting – and rather rare – benefit is that as it flowers on short shoots off old wood, so that in hedging it, you won’t be cutting off its flower potential.

Do you grow it? How would you describe the scent?

Somehow this plant was overlooked in the recent trimming cycle. This is less than one year’s growth. The outline of the original dome isn’t even visible amongst the long, chaotic growth.

Discussion

  1. I planted a hedge of Eleagnus and don’t let it get too fat or tall (2m) so I can manage to prune it myself. I love watching it in windy weather when the leaves flutter to show off their two tones, greyish underside and green on top. With all the rain this year it shoots almost as soon as I prune it but it’s easy enough to snip off those shoots. It’s an excellent hedge and a good windbreak.

    1. Yes, it’s the classic dilemma of the fast-growing hedge – you get it to the desired height quickly, but it’s a lot of work to then keep it at that height

  2. Deborah from Potager Designs wrote about this recently. I was wondering whether it would tolerate being pruned into an umbrella shape? Still looking for a small umbrella shaped large shrub/small tree to provide shelter to frost sensitive succulents beneath. I reckon this could work! And its evergreen.

    1. It’d need a lot of support, I think, trimmed into an umbrella. But then again, anything would. I’d be really interested to find out the extent to which a deciduous tree would provide some protection. I’m amazed, here, at the frost shadows you see under all deciduous trees, and how, even under the very sparse covering of gums, my neighbours up the road can keep a kaffir lime in perfect health. Seems like you don’t need much overhead. What’s more, surely the shade will compromise the succulents the rest of the year? What immediately came to mind as I conjured up your requirements were those fabulous horizontal hawthorns, creating what amounts to a flat ‘table’ of foliage at grafted height

  3. Yes this one is tough all right.

    Admittedly I am on Mt Dandenong but not in an old garden with decades of leaf mould in the ground, no I grow it on a verge with a great deal of tree competition and compacted soil, never water it and never worry in hard weather about how it is doing as it is always doing just fine. It still needs frequent tidying ( I hedge it at about 1.8 m) but that is a small price to pay for something which thrives where little else can make a living.

    Haven’t noticed any flowering, it is probably too shaded.

    1. Hey Karen, have a rummage deep into the plant. You might find some flowers right now. I suspect shade would reduce flowering, but unless the plant has been very recently pruned/trimmed, it’s unlikely you’d ever notice the flowers

  4. This in a garden and here when we purchased years ago. After some research I discovered what it was called Elaeagnus but the variegata version.
    To be honest I’m not fond of it but can’t take it out as it is trying so hard to own it’s place, and now that you mention the scent I have worked out where the delightful scent is coming from.
    I have a question re the variegation. It throws out quite a lot of plain green branches and I read somewhere that they are young ones. I have always thought you need to cut of when a plant returns to the non variegated form.
    Just curious so if anyone knows that would be great.
    (And I’m going to look out for the little flowers now) Thanks

    1. Beginning should read “This was in my garden when I purchased it years ago.”

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