PLANT PROFILE: Physocarpus opulifolius


I spied this shrub growing near the main entrance of Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem. It has long arching branches covered in pleated, burgundy-colored, lobed leaves. Clusters of perfectly round individual flower buds, tinged with pink, open to reveal small white flowers with airy stamens. Corymbs run along the length of each stem creating masses of attractive blossoms, seducing pollinators. Physocarpus opulifolius is a multi stemmed medium size deciduous shrub native to North America. It is a vigorous grower adaptable to most soils and while it likes sun, it tolerates some shade. As a member of the roseaceae family, individual flowers look like apple blossoms and corymbs resemble those of spirea or miniature snowball viburnum.

growing in front of Cornus alba and boxwood
This particular shrub may be Physocarpus opulifolius 'Summer Wine' named for its dark leaves which make a lovely backdrop for the flowers, especially just before they open and are at their pinkest. There are other varieties with orange to deep red foliage and some with gold-green foliage like 'Dart's Gold'. A dark red cultivar is justly named 'Little Diablo'.

White flowers make way for bright red seed pods in July which are said to resemble bladders. Physa is Greek for bladder and carpus refers to the seeds capsules or fruit. Opulifolius suggests that the leaves resemble those of Viburnum opulus. Propagate Physocarpus from seed or from soft wood cuttings in spring.

Physocarpus is commonly known as Ninebark for its many layers of peeling flaky bark which becomes obvious when the colorful fall leaves are gone. The bark contrasts nicely with the red seed capsules that last throughout winter. Only older stems take on the flaky appearance so resist heavy pruning in fall and know that birds will be provided with shelter and food in winter.  I'm considering replacing the purple weigela bush in the148th Street Garden with Physocarpus opulifolius, especially after observing adult and juvenile cardinals there earlier this week. Attractive, not fussy, year-round interesting plant that feeds birds and bees and it is a native. All good reasons to grow Physocarpus.


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