Introduction to Shrubs
A shrub is a low woody or semi woody perennial plant with a little or no trunk. It has numerous branches from the base which may be from the ground or just near the ground. Shrubs are invaluable in a garden, small or big, in singles or in groups. Massed together in a shrubbery, they provide a frame to the garden. In singles as specimen plants, they become a focus of attention and in clusters they create a mass effect. They are at home anywhere in the garden, be it a lawn, amidst a rockery/rock garden surrounded by a mass of annuals or perennials or a herbaceous border or by the waterside, or by an untidy drain or the barren wall.
The shrubs offer, in a very limited space, a wide variety of choice of colors, shapes and sizes of flowers and leaves and fragrance too. They are in bloom all through the year in hues and tones of rainbow colors from softest heavenly blue of the coy Plumbago to the loudest crimson of Calliandra radiating its sparkling rays all around. And from the purest white of Tabernaemontana coronaria to the darkest maroon, almost black of the rose.
In size they vary from the creeping ones like Juniperus horizontalis to the straight, erect tall Camellia or the Hibiscus syriacus.
There are the graceful inarching ones like the flowering pomegranate and the spreading ones in golden gay abundance like Forsythia.
There is the little Periwinkle which, in perpetual bloom, just can’t stop spreading its joy and the tall, ‘Most Desired One’, the Murraya exotica.
There is the little Polka Dot plant Hypoestes which runs amuck when it seeds or the Russelia juncea with its fountains of coral red sprays.
The leaves are pure silvery as of the Calotropis procera or of the Cineraria maritime, a fiery red of Acalypha, silvery green of Cassia artemisioides, a robust iridescent of crotons or of Strobilanthes and the softer gentler tones of Colerus, or the red and purple velvet of Gynura; some in perpetual beautiful color and the others assuming new robes in autumn.
There are shrubs most special for the visually handicapped, with sweet fragrance wafting across the darkness of the night which makes summer bearable like Jasminum sambac and the day sweeter like Gardenia, the ethereal one of Magnolia and above all the heady one of the ‘Night Queen’ (Cestrum nocturnum. And of the ‘Tree of Joy’, Nyctanthes arbor tristis which distributes its riches quietly when the world is in sleep or the Artabotrys odora-tissimus in search of which even the God of Love loses his way.
Not to rest content with pretty and fragrant flowers and leaves, some produce fruits like big or small berries, adored by the birds and men alike. Grewia asiatica with its chestnut-purple berries providing a cool refreshing drink on a hot summer afternoon and the dainty Chinese orange providing color and the most delicious marmalade, out of the world. Not to be beaten in the race are the yellow, red, golden, plum-purple and blackberries of Duranta plumier, Viburnum, Pyracantha, or Cotoneaster. And how can we forget the ‘Kitchen Companion’ Carissa caranda, an ever handy fruit for pickles.
If the foliage withholds sunlight on your herbaceous garden or the winter annuals, you can choose a deciduous shrub like Bauhinia galpinii and if you like a fresh green regular companioan, you can choose an evergreen one like the “Curry Leaf” (Murraya koenigii).
There is a shrub which reminds you tenderly and sweetly that it is growing with you – The “yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” (Francuscea latifolia). There is the delicate feathery one which clings to you and makes the parting difficult, Jasminum grandiflorum. It is time to linger on, it says.
A phrase aptly applies to the shrubs active at night, “He works, while the whole world is asleep”. The Night Queen will be the leader of this team, I suppose or will it be the “rogue” loner. The Hibiscus which closes its flowers at night or the Tibouchina which sheds off its flowers by the evening will be the opposite of it.
The shrubs have a wide range of adaptibility from open sunshine for jasmines to partial shade of Camellia or Azalea or both in sunshine and partial shade like the faithful companion Jatropha pandurifolia. There are some like Sambucas nigra which can tolerate heavy shade. There are drought tolerant like Allamanda and moisture loving like Spiraea and Hydrangea. They can grow on sandy soil like Accacia or custard apple, on acid soil like (Rhodendron or Camellia), on any soil like oleander, pomegranate and periwinkle, on neutral soil like rose, on wet soil like bamboos, on heavy soil like Forsythia, Thuja or Deutzia. In an environmentally degraded sunny area, who can beat the Bougainvillea?
Shrubs are not fussy and most of them are easy to grow. One has just to understand their requirements. They give much more of themselves than they ask for. Perhaps it is true of all the plants.
It is a joy and a wonder to see a shrub reach its glory so fast. But how to choose a shrub? Most of us do not really plan a garden but add the plants as they arrive. This does cause some “personality clash” and at times over crowding too. But one need not wait for a “perfect” plan nor does it need and expert to plan a small garden, especially, a home garden. One has to just take a plunge, plant a couple of sturdy shrubs like Jasminium or Allamanda or Hibiscus in the plains and like Hyrangea, Poinsettia or Spiraea in the hills. Their blooms will attract attention and admiration and there you are for the next plunge and start trying your hands with the less sturdy ones like Calliandra, Ixora, Jacobinia, or Plumbago in the plains and Azalea. Rhododendron and Tibouchina in the hills. And then on to more sophisticated ones like roses which need pruning in time and are also susceptible to some diseases and pests or to a pretty variegated Euonymus which sufferes from presistent scales in the city. Could then add plants which are exotic to the area. As you become familiar to their behavior, needs, strength and weakness, you can shift them, rearrange them or mix them with other plants, give them different shapes and even try your hand at breeding and introducing new varieties.
It is a great fun to buy or receive a shrub, and grow it but it is a greater one to grow it from seeds or cuttings. There is greater sense of achievement and possession too. It is your creation. Greater still is the joy of breeding a new variety, a new plant the like of which did not exist before.
The shrubs can also be grown as beautiful hedges, Henna (Lawsonia inermis) for its dainty compact foliage, fragrant flowers, and pretty rust reed berries with sharp spines keeping the predators at bay; Murraya exotica with silky, glossy, dark green foliage and fragrant white flowers in flushes; Carissa carandas with dark green foliage, compact, tall with spines and pretty edible rosy yellow berries and the spreading Acalypha glowing in sunshine and other lovelier ones.
The shrubs can also provide a sceen to separate one part of the garden from the other. The tall ones also become fast as useful wind barries. They can be conviniently placed to break the monotony of a line or contour or heighen the effect of a low horizontal spread.
Shrubs meet the need of the fast moving life of today when one wants to see the result of one’s handiwork within a short time. Some of them start flowering within a year and they can fill up a garden fast. With much less labor, they can also be easily transferred from one location to another for remodelling the garden or even shift to another place. They can be brought inside the house by growing them in pots and it can bring the garden into the home. They also require less maintenance labor than the annuals or the climbers. All parts of the shrub can be reached easily due to its restricted size.
The shrinking gardens and pressures on time, lead us to composite gardens, which would mix flowers, foliage, fruits and vegetables. Therefore the “Tree Tomato” (Cyphomandra betacea) as a vegetable, the curry leaf (Murraya koenigii) as a spice, the muskmelon (Carica papaya) as a fruit, the croton (Codiaeum variegratum) as a foliage plant and the ‘Java’ (Hibiscus) as the flower grow up together and easily adjust to each other. There is room for every one of them. It is a feeling of nature’s grace and gift to rush out to pick the curry leaf while the frying pan is bubbling with oil and other spices, to handle a smooth yellow lime and refresh yourself with fresh lime juice (instead of aerated water) or to pick the trumpet like glossy red Hibiscus. This composite garden is a world in itself.
There are some of the bigger trees which can be grown as shrubs in pots for many years, like Araucaria excels, Ficus elastica, Grevillea robusta, Mimusops elengi and the like. In fact they have been my companions of many years and merged beautifully in a group or showed themselves off a single plant in indoor decoration. Then there is Putranjiva roxburgii, which is a big tree but remarkably versatile to be grown as a hedge, and a shrub too. The ends of its inarching branches look like hands as if blessing of the universe around. It bears greenish white berries too in profusion.
The size of the shrub may vary according to age, location, position (sun, shade or partial shade), climate (rainfall and temperature) and care and attention bestowed on it. Similarly the period of flowering may also vary according to location, position, health and variety of shrub. Even within the same variety, there are some which flower very early. This behavior has been noticed in Jacaranda. A tree noted to bloom the earliest, continues to enjoy the reputation over the years. Some other isolated trees followed their own variations. But there is a peak period for every variety. Favorable cultural practices may extend it sometimes.
The character as evergreen or deciduous is also not precise and permanent; a shrub evergreen in tropical may become deciduous in subtropical areas like the crotons. But here also, if the shrub is kept in a warm place in winter protected from cold winds, it remains evergreen.