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Horticulturist Confesses: "I Like Elaeagnus"
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
A cereal commercial from a few years ago reminds me of a predicament I now face with my readers. In the commercial, adults sat in the shadows where their faces could not be seen and admitted they liked a children's cereal. Now, with my heart pounding hard, I confess that I like elaeagnus.
I feel better already. For years I have called it "Ugli-agnus." In fact I almost did not buy my house because of a few elaeagnus. This past weekend I met a lady who said her husband called it "Sister Elaeagnus," as if the plant was an elderly, if not homely, nun.
At this same meeting another gardener spoke up commenting that the fragrance of the blossoms was better than the sweet olive. The elaeagnus pungens is evergreen, or should I say ever silver, and is blooming now. While they are inconspicuous, the fragrance permeates the area with an intoxicatingly exotic sweet odor. While I was mowing, I could hardly wait until I got downwind from these shrubs.
Besides the fragrance, these shrubs have a lot going for them. The olive, gray-green foliage is very handsome and welcome in the world of dark green. These are large shrubs reaching 6 to 8 feet in height and 8 to 12 feet in width. They have to be in the top five plants to be used as screens. Many gardeners do not consider the large, mature width, and they plant them way too close to each other as well as the house.
You could hardly pick a better shrub for heat tolerance, and yet it also can handle the winter throughout Mississippi. Many say one detractor is that the plant produces large whips that need to be regularly pruned. This may be the case if you like the tidy sheared look. My sister in Texas has her elaeagnus trained as pom-poms, so she prunes very often. These long whips may have some value you did not realize.
One of my favorite gardeners in Yazoo City bends the whips over in a horseshoe shape and places them in a basket. The whip dries but also acts as a natural support for her paperwhite narcissus that she grows in the basket. Another gardener takes the long whips and weaves them like a grapevine for wreathes.
Other gardeners who excel in vase arrangements say the whips give a perfect design element behind the cut flowers.
Lastly, one other attribute most do not know about. Those wonderfully fragrant fall flowers also produce fruit. While the fruit is tiny and seedy, it is edible and makes wonderful jelly.
Elaeagnus is still pretty much sold generic but there are a few named varieties starting to gain some recognition. Fruitlandii is the best know with large silvery leaves; Maculata has leaves with a gold blotch in the center; Marginata has leaves with a silvery white margin; Variegata has yellowish leaves with whiter margins; and Tricolor with leaves that are green, yellow and pink.
No longer is it "Ugli-agnus." No longer will I be embarrassed to have guests over because I have some of these shrubs. I admit I love them and you will too if you use them right.