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Tips for the Compleat Gardener: Seven sons bring fall delight


Every year at this time my attention is captured by a tall shrub that I otherwise hardly notice except for the shade it casts and the attractive, peeling bark bringing interest to the 6 feet of multiple trunks between ground and foliage, it is kind of umbrella-shaped.

In September it is filled with clusters of white, fragrant flowers attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies for nectar but not for nurture – native to China but growing well in North America.

When a specimen is known for not being attractive to pests to me that means it does not welcome leaf-eating larvae, over-wintering wasps in galls or nests of eggs awaiting spring.

The flowers are followed by attractive red-purple drupes and elongated, red calyces that remain into winter; it is these very calyces that pull my eyes annually. This is a shrub related to honeysuckle shrubs called seven sons, Heptacodium miconoides [hepta-CO-dium mi-co-NOID-es].

It is a sturdy, easy to grow choice that can be used as a windbreak. It is deciduous but has many small branches. After all the color shows are done the bark peels away to reveal lovely brown skin for winter interest.

This shrub is called seven sons because the flowers bloom in whorls on branches and each whorl contains seven tiny flowers. The plant is sometimes known as “northern crepe” for its showy display of flower and fruit and it is fairly cold hardy. The best time to prune is late winter to early spring.

In my experience this shrub needs very little attention. The one in this picture has beauty berry planted on the edge of her shade, so along with Heptacodium we have Callicarpa Americana the native and larval host to a black vine beetle, a creature that has not crossed my path but needs its own host to survive.

Seven sons is not native and would be planted for the eye’s delight but every bug, butterfly, beneficial has a taste for a specific plant that is native to them. Planting natives brings all kinds of wonderful beings to your garden so do as much as you can while enjoying the occasional alien. Apparently in China, its native country, Heptacodium is becoming rare and is protected.

Speaking of aliens, the spotted lantern fly is beginning to invade the area. It lays its eggs on wood, trees, siding, in straight rows and covers them with a grey, foamy material that hardens to protect the larva. You can be proactive in your surroundings by destroying these eggs when you find them.

Interestingly the tree-of-heaven (Ailanthus altissima) originally imported from China in the 1700s as a street tree in Baltimore and Washington, is the lantern fly’s favorite food. The tree of heaven, also called Chinese sumac, has turned out to be an invasive alien that is a fast grower and can seed itself widely so the lantern fly is nature’s control in a way except that it likes grapes and hops also, among other things.

It has been my experience that left alone Mother Nature generally comes up with a solution like the recent finding that woodpeckers are developing a taste for the emerald ash borer or the precipitous arrival of ladybugs when a mob of aphids has hatched. Hungry eyes are always watching.

This is why we must be diligent about using natural controls carefully if you need to use any at all, we need the whole chain of existence to be linked for life to survive.

Last week I forgot to mention a contact for help with winter pot design and planting. Please email Cynthia at

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