At the Root

Story Felder Rushing

The party ain’t over just because the show-offs have left the room. Ever see old Andy Griffith show episodes in which two “fun girls” from Mount Pilot visit Mayberry? Every time the painted ladies flitted through, Andy and Barney got in trouble; meanwhile, the hard-working and perfectly attractive local women — Helen and Thelma Lou — were made to feel a little dowdy.

Think about it: isn’t that what azaleas and dogwoods do — show up in all their gaudy splendor, briefly tantalizing us while making other spring flowers fade into the background?

No matter. The Southern garden can still shine through summer with flowering shrubs that are as exotic as anything you will find anywhere on Earth, without needing a lot of water or sprays.

Mix and match — no two gardeners do it the same, so there’s really no way to mess up. Start with the obvious: Crape myrtles, the “lilac of the South.” Believe me, as an intrepid traveler who lives over a third of the year in Europe, they are nonstop stunning — and tough enough to thrive even in cemeteries! Couple with fragrant gardenias for a sensuous combination. By the way, the question of to prune or not to prune crape myrtles should be a purely personal choice, not a horticultural mandate. This form of pruning, called pollarding, has been done for centuries in England, where it provides limber twigs used to weave wattle fences. It really doesn’t harm the plants, and, to those who say it’s unnatural … well, so is plucking eyebrows. ’Nuff said.

Every Mississippi garden should include our state tree and flower, the Southern magnolia, but not the big one; the cultivar named Little Gem is more shrub than tree (it even grows well in large pots), and produces fragrant, fist-size blooms non-stop from April until fall’s first frost.

If you remove spent flower stems, butterfly bush (Buddleia) will continue producing hanging wands of purple, white or yellow that attract both butterflies and hummingbirds. Ditto for abelia, an old evergreen mainstay whose clusters of white or pink flowers are absolutely the best for attracting winged wildlife — even in a shaded garden.

For historic and contemporary gardens alike, both shrub roses and the hardy hibiscus called “rose of Sharon” are de rigueur. There are dozens of fragrant, disease-resistant, ever-blooming shrub roses that require little more than an occasional pruning; start with Knockout and move on to The Fairy, then Mutablis (the large “butterfly rose”). Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is covered much of the summer with teacup-size flowers (both single and double); cultivars with goddess names such as Aphrodite, Minerva, Helene, etc., don’t set seed, so they bloom all summer without spreading all over the place.

Throw in flowering trees such as vitex, mimosa and glory bower (Clerodendrum), and there is no end to ways to banish the party girls of spring and embrace the Helens and Thelma Lous of the rest of the year.

Without even mentioning glass bottle trees.