Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
When I met my husband Chris, his thumbs were not even the slightest shade of green. He started to show some interest in topics related to gardening as time went on, but his budding interest really blossomed when we bought our home, and a year later bought the lot next door.
The agreement when we purchased the lot next door was that the landscaping there would be his project, with my territory being around the house. Chris spent a lot of time drawing out his plans, and slowly bringing them to life as time and money have allowed.
One of his biggest projects has been four large planting beds. What to plant in these beds has been a subject of debate in the Nelson household.
The area in question is in full sun, and typically a lot of wind. Chris' ideas on what to plant evolved as his knowledge grew. His first idea included hostas. I vetoed that idea, as full sun and incredible wind would reduce any hosta to a withered mess.
For awhile Chris wanted to plant crepe myrtles, a plant way more accustomed to Southern climates than central Illinois. The crepe myrtle is a small to medium sized tree covered in flowers by midsummer, with attractive exfoliating bark. But typically crepe myrtles are hardy only to Zone 7, with a few listed as Zone 6.
Zone 6 cultivars have a chance of surviving in our Zone 5b climate if planted in a sheltered spot and mulched heavily for the winter. Crepe myrtles overwintered in central Illinois typically die back to the ground each year and so usually never get very large. The lot next door definitely doesn't qualify as a sheltered spot where a Zone 6 plant could hope to survive the winter. This realization pretty much killed Chris' plans to plant crepe myrtle.
Some readers will remember that last year my husband was sold on planting the Ben Franklin tree, Franklinia alatamaha. A summer-flowering tree also with attractive bark and great fall color like the crepe myrtle, it is much better suited to our Zone 5 climate. However, it is a very slow growing tree and we found it difficult to locate a specimen that was much larger than a seedling that didn't cost a small fortune.
Well this year Chris finally found "the" tree—the Seven Sons tree, Heptacodium miconioides. It has all the plusses of the crepe myrtle and the Ben Franklin tree—summer flowers and attractive bark, plus nice fall color. It will survive the winter in this area. Plus we found decent size trees for about $50 locally.
Seven Sons tree was first collected in 1907 in China. It was pretty much forgotten until the 1980s, and although it is more widely available now than it used to be, it is still a tree that most people will ask "what is that?" when they see it in the landscape.
The big attraction of this species is the fragrant, creamy white flowers that are borne in clusters of seven in late summer and early autumn, a time when there aren't a lot of fresh blooms in the landscape. Coupled with showy purple fruit and purple-bronze foliage later in the autumn, it provides quite a show in the landscape.
Through the winter Heptacodium shows off its tan bark which exfoliates to reveal a deep brown inner bark. Spring brings bright new green oval shaped leaves to start the cycle all over again.
Depending on your point of view, the Seven Sons tree is either a small tree or a large shrub. It reaches heights of up to twenty feet and widths of eight to ten feet. It may be grown as a single stem, which looks a lot more tree-like, or multi-stemmed, which is a lot more shrub-like.
People I know that have Heptacodium in their landscape have recommended keeping it multi-stemmed if deer are a concern. With multiple stems, there is not enough room for a deer to get his antlers close enough to rub on the tree and damage the bark.
One description of the Seven Sons tree touts it as "indestructible". That is just what this spot in our landscape needs. We have planted our Seven Sons trees and they are looking great despite the high winds we've had recently. Hopefully this summer will reveal some of the beautiful flowers. I think Chris chose a winner for his landscape design.