Nature

WISHFUL THINKING

Steeplebush plants at five years old…slowly failing. July 2020.

The 5-year-old Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) were looking dull and twiggy. But I hadn’t noticed how much so until I was scrolling through my photo library and came to a halt at the same plants 3 years ago with lush, vibrant green branches and many of the steeple-shaped, pink flowers that gives Steeplebush their common name. This year only the tops of the branches were green and none had flowered. They were in the wrong spot.

Healthy Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) at two years old. July 2017.
Steeplebush — their common name comes from their steeple-shaped pink flowers.

I reviewed Prairie Nursery’s planting instructions which recommends full sun for Steeplebush but noted they can tolerate partial sun. I really, really wanted Spiraea tomentosa in the garden. It’s a New Jersey native, low maintenance and I love its flowering pink steeples much more than non-native spiraea’s showy white blooms.

The previous owners had planted several non-native (and non-invasive) Spiraea cantoniensis, commonly called Bridal-wreath.  Bridal-wreath puts on a beautiful display of cascading white flowers in early Spring and then….the shrubs are kind of dull the rest of the year. The only sign of wildlife support I’ve found are Chinese Mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg sacks. Makes sense, the Chinese mantis has found a Chinese shrub.

Native Spiraea tomentosa attract butterflies and its larval host, the New England Buck moth, and its leaves turn a “showy reddish-gold in the fall.” The catalog description included: “Steeplebush ….often forms large colonies.” I envisioned a beautiful privacy hedge to block out the busy corner traffic and ignored the rest of the description that said: in the wild, Steeplebush are: “found in high quality wetland habitats.”

The spot I chose the plant the Steeplebush was under the canopy of an Eastern Red Cedar and only gets about 4 hours of morning sun. I had bent the meaning of “tolerate partial sun” to fit what I wanted…not what the plant needed.

The struggling Steeplebush shrubs are teaching me a lesson about wishful thinking.

I reached out to a neighbor who volunteers with a local watershed restoration project. Would she be interested in taking eleven Steeplebush that need full sun and wet soil?  I shared the catalog listing with its vibrant pictures to “sell” her on my failing plants. She said she’d take six. I potted them up, heavily pruned the barren twigs and placed them in full sun by the vegetable patch where they’d be watered by my more practical husband.  [The remaining five I moved to a sunnier spot along the garden fence among New England Aster.]

Steeplebush shrubs — a lesson about wishful thinking.

One month later, the potted Steeplebush are leafing out and are even flowering!

Check back in—my neighbor and I will transplant them to the riverside restoration this fall.

Happier in full sun.

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