Legend has it that Cassiopeia, an ancient queen of Ethiopia,
bragged to Poseidon, god of the sea, that her daughter,
Andromeda, was more beautiful than Poseidon’s sea
nymphs. Poseidon was touchy about such things, and punished
Cassiopeia by sending a sea monster to terrorize the
Ethiopians. Eventually the Ethiopian rulers consulted
oracles who told them that Andromeda had to be sacrificed
to the monster in order to save the country. Fortunately
for Andromeda, the great hero Perseus happened by and
saw her chained to a rock awaiting her fate. He rescued
her, killed the monster, and after a few more trials
and tribulations, the couple married. They had several
children, and were eventually rewarded for their virtue
by being placed in the night sky among the constellations.
Andromeda also ended up as a shrub, so to speak, and
a good one at that. At this time of the year, you see
white-flowered Andromeda, also known as pieris, blooming
in every other yard.
The most common pieris, Pieris japonica, are, as the
name suggests, natives of Japan. They are also known
as lily-of-the-valley shrubs because of their small
bell-like blossoms. Pieris flowers are borne in racemes
or clusters at the ends of the branches. While not as
spectacular as those of many azaleas, rhododendrons
or hydrangeas, they are lovely in a subtle way and smell
just like honey.
Pieris are especially desirable because they are all
evergreen and many of them provide visual interest in
more than one season. The elongated oval leaves are
dark green and glossy, and in some cultivars the young
foliage emerges red or bronze, which is downright exciting
in the spring. The shrubs thrive in the acid soil that
abounds in many areas, and once they are established
are not fussy about care. If you are looking for a shrub
that is familiar but different, some of the hybrid pieris
fill the bill nicely.
Many of the pieris on the market are either native
Asian species or their descendents. Because the shrubs
are so useful, they have also been hybridized extensively.
There are many good Dutch and Japanese hybrids, as well
as some excellent cutivars developed by an American,
Dr. Robert Ticknor, at the North Willamette Research
and Extension Center in Oregon.
Pieris ‘Forest Flame’ is a medium size (maturing
to five-feet) variety that has brilliant red early growth.
The color and pattern of the new leaves is such that
from even a short distance the red leaves appear almost
poinsettia-like. After awhile the leaves mature to pink,
then cream, then finally to green. It’s rare to
find a plant that does all that without even bringing
flowers into the picture. Pieris japonica ‘Variegata’
has the same bright young foliage, but when the leaves
mature they are edged in cream.
There are those demanding gardeners, of course, who
will think that fragrant white flowers, and brilliant
leaves and even variegation just doesn’t do enough.
For them there are pieris with red or pink or even bi-colored
blossoms. ‘Dorothy Wycoff’ features eye-catching
dark purplish-red flower buds that open in the spring
to reveal pink bells. This cultivar also supplies winter
interest because the leaves turn bronze and remain so
during the cold months. If pink is anathema in your
garden, but red is acceptable, try Pieris japonica ‘Shojo’,
which has deep red flowers. Fans of bi-color blossoms
should try Pieris ‘Christmas Cheer’. While
it doesn’t bloom at Christmas, it definitely brings
a gift to the garden. The flowers are white with rosy
There are also pieris for small-space gardeners. The
smaller cultivars can be grown in pots on a terrace
or deck, or used in ornamental borders. One of the japonicas,
Pieris japonica yakusimana, grows only 1-2-feet tall,
but has the same large clusters of white flowers produced
by much larger cultivars. For the middle of the border
or a large pot, Pieris japonica ‘Pygmaea’
grows to about 3-feet tall, and has the same white flowers
and brilliant red spring foliage as other varieties.
The cultural requirements for pieris are similar to
those for rhododendrons. In addition to acid soil, the
plants thrive best in light shade. For a sunnier location,
try a sun-tolerant hybrid, Pieris ‘Mountain Fire’.
As the name suggests, the spring growth is bright red.
The flowers are white.
The mythical Andromeda started out as an unlucky young
woman—sacrificed because of her mother’s vanity
and the unpredictable wrath of the gods. She ended up
with a heroic husband, a kingdom, a constellation, and
a namesake plant that is universally admired. It almost
makes up for the sea monster.
Common pieris varieties can be found in most nurseries
and garden centers.