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Thorny Elaeagnus: Don’t Dismiss It Just Yet

Nov 17, 2016 06:52PM ● Published by Melanie Heisinger

Getting to the Point: Thorny Elaeagnus isn’t for every yard but don’t dismiss it just yet

By Steve Huddleston

  

The matter of planting an elaeagnus in the yard can be a thorny issue. Literally. A large shrub with modified “thorns,” elaeagnus does not belong in everyone’s landscape because of its ultimate size. However, in the right situation, thorny elaeagnus makes an ideal shrub with many fine qualities.

Thorny elaeagnus (Elaeagnus pungens) comes to us from Japan and forms a large, sprawling, evergreen shrub that can reach an ultimate height of 6 to 8 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide.  The shrub grows fast and sends up long, cinnamon-colored, arching stems from the crown of the plant. These stems, or suckers, quickly rise above the rest of the foliage and easily draw attention to themselves.  The stems, buds and twigs are all covered with silver scales.  Long, slender “thorns” appear on most vigorous new shoots. These thorns are not especially stout, but they could hurt if you jam one into your flesh.  Eventually, though, small leaves sprout from these thorns, and they quickly grow into a soft, young stem.  The oval- to oblong-shaped leaves alternate along the stem and have a smooth but wavy margin.  The leaves on the common cultivar ‘Fruitlandii’ are grayish-green on top and light tan on the underside. The upper and lower surface of the leaves is covered with silvery scales, which give a flaky, silver appearance. Some cultivars of thorny elaeagnus have variegated leaves.  ‘Maculata,’ for instance, sports 3 to 4-inch-long leaves with a bright yellow center and green margins.  The Southern Living Plant Collection (southernlivingplants.com) now features a cultivar named ‘Olive Martini’ that has green leaves edged in gold. ‘Olive Martini’ creates a striking display in the sunny border, provides sturdy structure and stable color and its silvery new growth adds seasonal interest to this evergreen shrub. The hybrid Elaeagnus x ebbingei ‘Gilt Edge’ features green splotches in the center of the leaf and banana-yellow leaf margins that really give the plant an overall yellow appearance.   

 Apart from the wonderful, large shrub that thorny elaeagnus makes, its flowers bring utter delight to the fall garden.  The bell-shaped, cream-colored flowers are very small – only about 1/4 inch long – and look as if they have been sprinkled with cinnamon.  You can find them in small clusters where the leaf joins the stem.  Because of their size, they are essentially inconspicuous.  However, their captivating fragrance – reminiscent of the smell of cloves – makes a huge impact on the olfactory system and perfumes the air during November.  In fact, the fragrance grabs your attention from quite a distance.  These tiny flowers give way to small, half-inch-long red berries (drupes) that ripen in the spring.  Each fruit is almost completely filled with one, large seed.  Between the seed and the leathery exterior of the fruit, there is a blood-red pulp that is sweet and edible when ripe.  The fruit is subject to freeze damage in the colder part of its range.  Therefore, although the shrub will bloom in the fall, its fruit may not make it to spring.  When fruit does develop on the shrub, it provides food for birds. 

 Thorny elaeagnus grows in USDA hardiness zones 7-9 in full sun to part shade in just about any kind of soil except constantly wet, soggy soil.  It’s a tough, fast-growing, low-maintenance shrub that withstands pests, pollution, salt spray, heat, drought and deer.  Once established, it requires very little, if any, supplemental water.  Plant thorny elaeagnus in a location where it has plenty of room to reach its mature size.  Start with a 5-gallon plant, and install 6 feet on center (6 feet from the center of one plant to the center of the next plant).  In two or three years, the shrubs will have grown into each other to form a large, continuous hedge.  The better you can water and fertilize it, the faster it will grow and fill in.  Don’t even think about shearing this large shrub into shapes such as squares and balls or even into a boxed, continuous hedge. Let it attain its natural shape and full size.  If you do prune or shear this shrub, you’ll probably be frustrated by the quick regrowth of suckers that emerge from the crown of the plant in no time.  These long, branchless stems rise into the air above the sheared foliage and create an unkempt appearance even after a recent shearing.  These suckers are less of a problem if you don’t shear or prune at all.  Use this shrub along a property line as a large hedge or screen for privacy or even security.  It also looks good as a backdrop for a mixed border of smaller, blooming shrubs, ornamental grasses, perennials and annuals.  It’s especially striking planted in front of ‘Little Gem’ magnolias because the silver leaves contrast with the dark green leaves of the magnolia, and the cinnamon-colored stems correspond to the brown undersides of the magnolia leaves.   It’s the perfect shrub for holding soil and providing vegetation on slopes and hillsides.  It even looks great and will perform well at the edge of ponds and pools.  Include thorny elaeagnus in the landscape as wildlife habitat; its dense mass of tangled branches provides the perfect shelter for birds to roost and build their nests.

One caveat about thorny elaeagnus:  It’s listed as a Texas invasive plant on the website www.texasinvasives.org.  Although plants don’t always produce fruit, animals and birds disperse the seeds, therefore widening its area of distribution. Reproduction also occurs via stem sprouts. Because this shrub gets large, it can climb into trees and choke out native vegetation.

 Yes, whether or not to plant elaeagnus in your yard can be a thorny issue.  However, if you have the right conditions for it and will manage it well, it makes a wonderful – and an especially fragrant – addition to the landscape. 

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