Saturday, 17 November 2012

Skimmia, the plant most often with green leaves and red berries


You can find Skimmia all through the ornamental garden at Wakehurst Place, and here and there at Kew Gardens (for example, across the pond from the Palm House).

You'll recognise them from the dark green, oval leaves and small, red berries. Sure plenty of other plants fit this description but it seems that Skimmia does more often than most. The low shrubs carry their clumps of small berries - each berry about a centimetre in diameter - for a large part of the year. At least that's what the female and plants with hermaphroditic flowers do.

One could say that's pretty much all these plants do. That this is not a genus to get excited by. Unless, you are custodian of the National Collection of Skimmia.


Funnily enough, this honours falls to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and in particular our Wakehurst Place estate. Even more funnily, given my pedigree, the bulk of the collection is in the Kangaroo Pen at Wakehurst Place. (The last time kangaroos (or probably wallabies) hopped through this part of the garden was the end of the nineteenth century.)

There are only four species of Skimmia, which might suggest holding the national collection is a cinch. But that's forgetting what gardeners like to do to relatively straight-forward plants. I remember reading (and I'm sure I've noted previously) that there are more than 400 cultivars of the Fork Fern (Psilotum nudum) - I can't begin to imagine how you get more than a couple of variants of that skeletal plant.

But back to Skimmia. It was Kew's scientists that untangled the taxonomic mess that prevailed for nearly a century, but even they find the morass of cultivars too much to tie down completely. It's said, on our website, that only 28 of the 53 named cultivars of Skimmia japonica subspecies japonica have been accurately identified and documented. To be fair, there are amongst the cultivars variously coloured and shaped leaves, variously sized and clumped red (and sometimes white) berries, and variously coloured buds.


Skimmia is in the lemon and boronia family (Rutaceae) so the leaves have a strong smell when crushed. All  four species are from warm temperate parts of Asia and I gather the name 'skimmia' comes from shikimi, the Japanese name for these plants, or perhaps misapplied from their Star Anise (Illicium religiosum).

To get fruits, I note, you need male and female plants - so presumably cross-fertilisation is necessary in most cases. However there are some cultivars that bear flowers with male and female bits; flowers doing it for themselves.

At this time of year its all fruits and buds, as you can plainly see (and then see me).




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