It’s 15 degrees on this January morning — so cold that when I look through the window at my bird feeder outside, even the chickadees chickadon’t. Yet I know that in just a few weeks one of Grumpy’s favorite winter shrubs will fill the garden with fragrant, golden orbs of happiness — paperbush.
Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) gets its name from the high-quality paper made from its bark in its native China. In the South, it languished in obscurity for years, until nurseries discovered it’s incredibly easy to force into early bloom. Winter flower and garden shows then made it a mainstay of their displays. Every gardener who sniffed its perfume and gawked at its blooms wanted one. Because it’s easy to grow and cuttings root in a snap, voila! Gardening had a new star.
Paperbush is unique in that it looks like it’s blooming weeks long it actually does. Plump flower buds covered in silvery, silky hairs gleam in the sun all winter atop the deciduous shrub’s naked branches.
The buds slowly expand as the days grow longer, so that by mid-February in Grumpy’s neck of the woods (north-central Alabama) any mild weather starts them popping. Bloom clusters a couple of inches across consist of many, fragrant, tubular blossom that are white outside and golden inside. They might remind you of the blooms of daphne, a relative, but paperbush is much easier to grow than daphne.
Even in paperbush didn’t bloom, it would make a handsome shrub. Dark blue-green leaves, about 4 inches long and half as wide, cloak the plant from spring to fall. They remind me of rhododendron and anise. And glorioski — deer don’t eat them.
Light: Full sun or light shade
Soil: Moist, fertile, well-drained
Size: 6 to 12 feet tall and wide
Growth rate: Rapid
Pests: None serious
Growing zones: USDA Zones 7-9
Just plain vanilla paperbush is plenty to love for most people, but here are some special selections you might want to consider for your garden.
‘Akebono’ (‘Red Dragon’). Orange-red flowers! Grumpy has a small one that’s yet to flower. Said to be less vigorous and more finicky than the others. We’ll see.
‘Gold Rush.’ Bright yellow flowers, moderate growth rate, grows 6 feet tall and wide in 10 years.
‘Hawkridge Selection.’ Yellow flowers, compact form, slower growth, 4 feet tall and wide in 10 years. Good choice for small spaces.
‘Nanjing Gold.’ Large, very fragrant, yellow flowers, 8-inch long leaves, 8 feet tall and wide in 10 years.
‘Snow Cream.’ Yellow flowers, very vigorous, fast growth, 12 feet tall and wide in 10 years.
Where to Buy Paperbush
Look for paperbush at better garden centers and nurseries as soon as they get new plants in. If you can’t find it locally, try these outstanding mail-order nurseries.