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Oh, my aching muscles...

A New Favorite

By July Hays

Northwest gardeners have discovered it’s easy to love a Hebe, and growers have responded by offering more and more kinds. For a Hebe enthusiast, each trip to the garden center uncovers new pots of temptation. So many Hebes, so little garden space!

The number-one reason gardeners give for their attraction to these small, flowering shrubs is that “they look so tidy, so neat!” It is true that in the broadleaf types, the leaves are arranged symmetrically and often look as if someone had carefully stacked them in four rows up each stem. The number two reason gardeners love them is for their spikes of purple, pink, blue and white flowers, so like those of Veronica – exactly what they were called long ago. When the taxonomists decided they weren’t really Veronicas, they were named after the Greek goddess of youth, Hebe.

More than 100 species of Hebe have been discovered in New Zealand and islands thereabouts, with a couple coming from Chile. While most of the plants we yearn after belong to the broadleaf Hebes, another group, the whipcord Hebes, is also intensely interesting.

If you have seen a little mound called Hebe cupressoides ‘Boughton Dome’ which looks so tight and firm you might assume you could sit on it, then you know what the whipcord Hebes are. Their small leaves overlap closely along the stems so they look much like a dwarf conifer. While many of them bloom, the texture of their foliage is their chief charm.

With all these species – excellent in their own right – to work with, plant breeders have hybridized some terrific plants. There are Hebes for the perennial garden, for the shrub border, for formal gardens, rock gardens, oriental gardens and more. There are green leaved Hebes, grey leaved ones, and whipcord Hebes. Each seems to have its own style, so let’s look at the different kinds. 

There are two green-leaved Hebes that have been around for many years in the Northwest. Hebe buxifolia, or Box-leaf Hebe, has been widely used as a quick-growing substitute for Boxwood hedging, as it grows to three or four feet tall. It is a clean, bright green, and when its little white bloom spikes open in June and July, it couldn’t be prettier. It should be trimmed after the blooms fade to stay compact. If it gets leggy, it can be pruned back by half, as it will fill back in readily.

Hebe mckeanii looks much like a compact Heather, and is used in similar positions. Its leaf color is chartreuse-green, and its texture stays perfect without trimming, at 12 inches tall, spreading to 24 inches. This one is good to drape over rocks and has little white flowers in summer.

Green-leaved hybrid Hebes, which may have rounded, shiny leaves or larger, narrow leaves, have the biggest blooms. They range in height from about 18 inches (‘Blue Elf’) through four feet (‘Great Orme’). In-between you will find the purple-flushed foliage of ‘Tricolor’, ‘Amy’, ‘Alicia Amherst’ and ‘Coed’, at about 30 inches. ‘Autumn Glory’, ‘Patty’s Purple’, ‘Variegata’ and ‘Purple Picture’ are about the same height. A little taller are ‘Midsummer Beauty’ and ‘Nicola’s Blush.’

‘Nicola’s Blush’ and ‘Great Orme’ have pink blooms that fade to white, creating a pretty two-tone effect. These Hebes all should be trimmed back after blooming (up to one-third of their height) in order to keep them thick. It will also bring a second bloom in some, notably ‘Autumn Glory’, and ‘Blue Elf’. Hebe anomela has red stems and a reddish color in the young, narrow leaves. It has a fine, dense texture and summer blooms of pale lilac fading white.

The grey-leaved Hebes tend to be shorter. They are often from mountainous areas of the South Island of New Zealand. The tried-and-true Hebe pinguifolia ‘Pagei,’ a small-leaved, six-inch sprawler that roots as it goes, makes a great groundcover for a well-drained spot in sun. H. pinguifolia ‘Sutherlandii’ is more compact, grey-green, and about 10–15 inches tall by three feet wide. Both have white summer flowers, but the anthers on ‘Sutherlandii’ are blue, giving it a misty look. H. glaucophylla at 12 to 15 inches tall  also will sprawl and root as it goes, but may be kept bushy by trimming after it blooms. H. pimeleoides ‘Quick Silver’ is erect and fountain-shaped, needing annual pinching to keep it full. All these grey-leaved Hebes are extremely useful for open situations where it is hard to water. They look good with rocks and under red Barberries.

Hebe ‘Red Edge’ has a blue-green leaf with a thin red outline that lends interest to mixed container plantings. It has compact growth to about 18 inches and has lilac summer blooms that fade white. The red edge looks especially bright in winter. Tiny grey leaves are found on Hebe topiaria, a chunky mound of about 24 inches. Its small white blooms nearly cover the leaves in summer, making a dainty picture. Looking very similar, only with a larger grey leaf, is H. albicans, which is one that rarely needs trimming. Despite its larger leaf, it does not get quite as tall as H. topiaria, and looks choice cascading out of a container.

Locally available whipcord Hebes include the previously mentioned H. cupressoides ‘Boughton Dome,’ and H. cupressoides itself, which, just as the name implies, has cypress-like foliage. It blooms with a lilac flower that fades to white. The attractive golden foliage of H. ochracea ‘James Stirling,’ is quite hardy (Z 6). It rarely blooms and should not be trimmed. The whipcord Hebes are wonderful texture accents.

Corinne Kennedy, the enthusiastic Hebe maven at Magnolia Garden Center in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, observes that Hebes appeal to a wide range of gardeners because of their many leaf shapes and colors and their widely varying growth habits. They are evergreen, many of them flower in summer, and they are small, making them extremely useful in smaller gardens.

Corinne notes that they are very popular in containers and baskets because of their distinctive textures. She says ‘Red Edge’ sold out continually last summer for that reason. Vashon Island grower, Carole Lynn Ives of Robinwood Nursery, provides local garden centers with four-inch pots of Hebes early in the season because they grow so fast, and because the small pots can be easily tucked into containers with other perennials and annuals to make fascinating vignettes.

The use and care of Hebes is complicated by conflicting reports of size and hardiness between English and Northwest growers. Grace Dinsdale of Blooming Nursery in Oregon, who has been growing Hebes for at least a dozen years, says that her best efforts have not made the Hebes in her garden as large as the same ones she sees in English gardens. And some that are rated more tender in England are considered hardier here. Local growers are trying to sort out which ones are best for our climate by trial. But it appears certain that Hebes are not so much cold-sensitive as they are drainage sensitive. In particular, the whipcord and grey-leaved Hebes, which are mostly mountain plants, need good drainage. All Hebes need a site in which water never stands, even in rainy weather. If you have glacial moraine soil, enrich it with compost and you will find your Hebes thriving!

Some references tell us that Hebes will do well in sun or shade, but experience shows that here in Puget Sound they need at least five hours of sun during the day. The best blooming always occurs with more sun. Give fertilizer during the spring and early summer (growers like to use slow-release fertilizer). After blooming, the plants should have the old flower spikes sheared off, and if the plant is showing signs of legginess, up to a third of the stem should be cut off. In particular, the green-leaved, large-flowered types will look much better with this treatment. They will sprout new twigs, and it is the new twigs that have that attractive neatness.

In addition, the green-leaved Hebes with larger flower spikes need shelter from north winds. Most of them are considered USDA Zone eight plants. But we have only a few short years of experience with some of these, and there are sure to be revisions. As an example, several growers mentioned that the beautiful pink flowered Hebe ‘Great Orme’ is supposed to be hardy to Zone five, but they have doubts, based on the large leaf size, and are anxious to put it through a really cold winter. One place to shelter Hebes is at the foot of taller shrubs in a south-facing border. Larger Hebes make good foundation shrubs on a south or west wall. Unlike Rhododendrons and Azaleas, they don’t mind the lime that leaches from concrete foundations; they are fine with either acid or alkaline soils as long as it is not too extreme. Sites like these examples will give them both shelter and sun.

In the meantime, as committed gardeners, we must forge ahead with our Hebe experiments. A new group of Hebes is becoming available, called the Wiri Hybrids (‘Wiri Mist,’ ‘Wiri Joy’ etc.) which are extremely floriferous. I can hardly wait!

In your garden,  you may need to find a warm microclimate to overwinter hebe.

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