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great shrub: physocarpus opulifolius

physocarpus-diabloI T’S THE ONE EVERYONE ASKS ABOUT whenever I have tours; the one that everyone thinks is a Viburnum but isn’t. Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Diabolo,’ the big, maroon-leaved form of ninebark, is a great shrub: easy and showy over a long season, a giant fountain-shaped creature that attracts attention even from a distance. But it’s not the only variety I grow…there are others. Physocarpus opulifolius: Second in a series on great shrubs.

darts-gold-physocarpus
Physocarpus are called ninebark because of their exfoliating bark, a trait that’s listed as an ornamental feature in catalogs and reference books, but frankly I say hmmmm….at least to that part of the good p.r. around these plants the last few years. Yes, the bark peels, but ninebarks can be a bit rangy so don’t expect the textural and sculptural winter beauty of a Stewartia or Kousa dogwood or lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana). I wouldn’t put this right by my door in the place of 365-day honor, much as I love the plant, a native (in its plain green form) of the eastern United States.

physocarpus-seeds
White flowerheads in May-into-June fade to reddish-pink seedheads (above) that look especially nice against the wine-colored leaves, almost as if the plant blooms twice.

Long before I grew ‘Diablo’ (the name on its tag, but which I later learned is ‘Diabolo’) I brought a rooted cutting of the golden-leaf form of Physocarpus (above), called ‘Dart’s Gold,’ home from Western Hills Nursery in Northern California. Or at least I thought it was ‘Dart’s Gold.’

But like ‘Diablo,’ my so-called ‘Dart’s Gold’ got really big in time, like 10 by 10 feet or even wider; the labels say otherwise, that it gets to just 5 feet or so. I suspect my gold one is just ‘Luteus,’ or maybe ‘Luteus’ and ‘Dart’s Gold’ are the same thing, who knows? (Don’t plant names drive you crazy?)

Each of these fast growers can get cut down hard if they outgrow their space and will resprout from the base vigorously, or the tactic can just used every couple of years to prevent them ever reaching full size. Hard prunings are best accomplished in very early spring, but every year it’s best to take out some of the oldest stems at the base to make room for more fresh ones.

My ‘Dart’s Gold’ is in its third total, to-the-ground resurrection, with Round 4 coming next April or thereabouts; my oldest of several ‘Diabolo’ has seen itself beheaded once so far. But a full-grown ninebark is a handsome thing, from May to late October here.

coppertina-physocarpus-leaf
If a smaller plant is what you are after, an even more recent introduction called ‘Summer Wine’ (maroon leaves, like a half-sized ‘Diabolo’) or even ‘Coppertina’ (copper foliage, above) would make a good choice.

All are hardy in Zones 3-8, but the hotter it gets where you are the more the leaves may fade from their peak color toward greener in high summer. All are also loved by deer (but as you may recall, I have a deer fence, which keeps deer from gnawing on the shrubs in the big borders like the one below, where ‘Diabolo’ is at near left). No plant is perfect, you know.

physocarpus-in-border

  1. Carrie says:

    I have a Diabolo ninebark in my backyard that I plan to transplant this year to the front yard. The Diabolo was only planted last fall so it has not had much time to get settled yet. I did not realize that they get so large when I purchased it. The place I want to plant it is at the front of my house in a southern exposure where it gets roasting hot and quite dry. We are in Zone 3 Canada. How do you think it would do in those conditions? My other issue is my house in only a one story ranch and I don’t know if I would have a 10X10 foot area for this shrub to spread out. Would it be easy to keep this shrub trimmed back to 6X6 or 7X7 so it does not over power the space? I don’t think there is anyplace else on my property where I could move it if it couldn’t go right by the house.

    Thanks!
    Carrie

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Carrie. I have kept one of mine (that’s in a tighter spot) smaller than it would like to be on its own by cutting it tot he ground every few years. I know, it sounds rough…but better than cutting halfway as it ruins the shape to do that, which wants to be cascading/fountain like.

      Instead I let it grow to the desired size, enjoying it for three or four years or so, maybe even five, then in early spring one year, just as it’s starting to push new growth (April here usually) I cut it back to about a foot or so from the base and start over.

      I have done this twice with some, three or four times with my very oldest gold-leaf ninebark (Dart’s Gold).

    2. CINDY KOSTIUK says:

      I have several of these planted on the south side of my house. I am in Zone 3 (canadian border, Int’l. Falls, Mn, “Icebox of the Nation” Ha) and they do great!! And I keep one trimmed in smaller area and let other two grow wild..all do great…

  2. Carrie says:

    Thanks Margaret for your ideas. I think I will try it at the front of my house and then just cut it back if it gets out of control.

    Love this site.

    Thanks!
    Carrie

  3. Lory says:

    After reviewing all of the comments regarding this mold issues w/the Coppetina’s I’m pretty sure that this is what’s afflicting mine. So could you please clarify what I could do get rid of it. I really like plant and would hate to get rid off it, I’m a young gardener, so any advice would be very much appreciated.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lory. If you are referring to the white mildew on the leaves it will appreciate better air circulation and sunshine (if it’s in too much shade). There are other tactics about mildew in general; download this PDF from the Morton Arboretum in Illinois for more information.

  4. Sue says:

    Hello. I stumbled onto this page looking for information on a tapestry hedge and must say I absolutely love your site!!! I’ve been clicking all sort of links and reading your articles. In fact, I’ve actually lost track of time lol. I found my first Coppertina this summer and am thinking of doing a tapestry hedge in the different colour (yes, I’m Canadian and spell some words with a “u” :P) varieties. I much appreciate the heads up on the size that these lovely plants may achieve. I’ll be sure to have my hedge trimmers at the ready next year lol.

    Oh, and before I forget, could you please be so kind as to give me an idea of how far apart to space the plants to provide proper air circulation.

    Cheers :)

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Sue. Thanks for the kind words. The different Physocarpus get to different sizes — Coppertina seems to be smaller than Diablo, for instance, or than a mature Dart’s Gold. The dark-leaved Diablo will get to at least 10 feet across here; I had a very old Dart’s Gold that got even bigger than that, but my Coppertina might span only 6 feet so far after maybe 5 years.

      So depending what you’re growing, you have to allow for for half that width and half the width of the neighboring plant on either side, if you know what I mean. (If you were putting an eventually 10-foot-wide thing next to an eventually 6-foot-wide thing you’d leave 8 feet between them).

    2. TK says:

      Sue–did you ever grow the tapestry ninebark hedge? I’m thinking of trying one and would love to know if you got one started

  5. Sue says:

    Thanks so much Margaret!! You mentioned the exact three that I’m planning on using, so now know how many I need and how to plant them. I can’t wait for them to fill out and see the end result :D

  6. Donna says:

    Hi everyone.. I’m here because I need answers to my question about the Diablo Ninebark.. I live in Northeast Ohio and would love to start growing the Ninebark. I was wondering if someone can tell me the best time to plant or how I should go about starting since winter is coming. Also has anyone used seeds before to start their bush or should I just stick to a potted one… thanks so much

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Donna. Start with a nursery plant; it’s fast growing but don’t do the seed route. You can plant right now (not too much later!) or in early spring (or anytime next spring, actually) but you might get a good deal right now on sale plants, since it’s almost nursery closing time.

  7. Linda says:

    Hi Margaret,Love this site! We have a summer wine nine bark that was planted 2 years ago and now has developed a thick white powder and is turning black at the base so I know it is not going to survive. We have had so much heavy rain here and have lost other plants because of it. Thanks to your site, I realize what has caused this. It,s palnted on the corner of the house and gets only afternoon sun,looks like we will buy a neww and plant it in a new location, We love this plant and will find a way for it to love New York too! Thanks

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Linda. Sorry for the confusion – the first time a person comments, I have to approve it manually before it appears on the site, hence the delay. I love the plant, too, and hope yours will be happy in a new spot (or a new one will). See you soon!

  8. Heidi Hamilton says:

    My wonderful friend Ken gave me an aureum he had trained in a standard. It is just magnificent, a specimem in the garden. The nursery trade really should sell them as standards too!! Margaret I love your blog and remember a lovely visit to your garden,thank u, Heidi

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Heidi. What a good idea: a standard (makes me wonder if it was Ken Selody in NJ). Thanks for the kind words, and hope to see you again soon.

  9. Debkb–I lost two japanese maples in zone 5, and went with ‘Black Lace’ elderberry shrub instead, training it as a small tree. It grows 3′ a year and is just AWESOME. Lovely white flowers, and if you have a pollinator, berries. It tends to grow horizontal in lovely plains of branches like some ornamental dogwoods.

    Margaret–I have ‘Coppertina’ ninebark and adore it, much more than ‘Dart’s Gold.’ The spring foliage is fantastic, the blooms of course wonderful, and the fall color is a bright, BRIGHT red.

  10. Judy from Kansas says:

    I’ve become a fan of ninebark just recently and am enjoying both Coppertina and Summer Wine – hope they survive our horribly, horribly hot summer this year.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi Tori (and Maureen). A true four-season shrubs or small tree that has no down days, I think. I have a magnolia across from the kitchen door, a Japanese umbrella pine beyond the back porch door, near a dwarf white pine…so things that always look good. Of course the scale can really vary — can’t fit an umbrella pine right beside a house in a tight spot. So I think exceptional conifers, or a four-season deciduous tree or shrub (that has good structure and bark, and maybe fruit too or fall color, not just a minute of flowers in spring).

  11. judy says:

    Just found your website and enjoy the comments. I, too, have gotten to love my Ninebark shrubs. While I was shopping I saw a “tree” that said it was Phytocarpus. I assume this was specially trained. Not sure how tall they will get but I’m thinking of buying one.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Judy. Just the other day someone was visiting and looked at my very old ninebarks and said how huge they are — so like many Viburnum, they are sort of “large shrub/small tree” when mature, I think.

  12. pierre says:

    I have several 9barks for whatever reason the last 2 years they haven’t done well. at first one started to dry up, then another and now all 6 plants seem not to be doing well. what is the life expectancy of this plant. I’ve had him now for 15 years

    Prior to that they were very hardy

    1. margaret says:

      I do notice that they age messily, with more and more branches getting dry and lifeless over time. I think it’s good to go in each year at the end of winter and cut out nasty looking woody at the base, to make more room/let in more light, sort of rejuvenating gradually, a little at a time, to stay ahead of the decline. I have even cut some to the ground when they just got too twiggy and thick with dead wood, and they regrew.

  13. Ellie says:

    Last fall I bought a “Little Devil” nine bark on clearance. It is, as its name indicates, suppose to stay small, about 3 ft wide by 3 ft high. Time will tell!

    1. margaret says:

      I guess I have several Big Devils, Ellie. :) Seriously, though, that small one you mention sounds interesting; I shall investigate.

  14. Enaj says:

    Just transplanted a gorgous ninebark that a neighbor gave me. I’ve heard how fantastic they are and have a nice space devoted to it, but before I could get it into the ground it went in shock and started wilting. Each morning it perks up a bit but by late afternoon its wilting. Please help asap.

    1. margaret says:

      It’s typical for stressed plants (with roots disturbed, for instance, at transplanting) to open their “pores” (technically stomates in the leaves) and wilt in self-defense. This is especially true with summertime transplanting, which is why early spring and mid to late fall is usually easier on the transplants. They then gradually are able to take up enough moisture to get turgid again, and stop doing the wilting thing. Don’t let it dry out, but don’t swamp it, either. If it’s baking hot where you are, you can create shade with a sort of “tent” of fabric on stakes if the plant’s not too big.

  15. Michele says:

    Hello Margaret,
    I just came across your site researching ninebark and I find you have lots of great info. Thanks. I just bought a summer wine ninebark in a tree form. It’s mid August and I’m in zone 5. I’m putting it in my garden against a fence. It will get plenty of sun. I plan on pruning it yearly to keep it somewhat under control. How far would you suggest I plant it from the fence?
    Thanks
    Michele in Wisconsin

    1. margaret says:

      Each variety is a little different in size but ‘Dart’s Gold’ and ‘Diabolo get very big, like 12-15 feet wide if unpruned (though the nursery tags say 10). But I have read that ‘Summer Wine’ reaches only 6 wide. Maybe be safe and plan for 8, so put it half that distance from the fence or so?

  16. Diana Gillogly says:

    I bought a Physocarpus opuilius (Jefam) last fall and can`t find any information on it. Can somebody help me with this?

  17. Joan Craig says:

    I just purchased two Coppertina plants and hope to plant them on the North side of my home. Will they survive in the shade?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joan. I don’t know where you live, but generally they grow and color up best in a sunny to light shade setting — not low light.

  18. Curious in BC says:

    HELP! I have to move my Diablo due to space in my garden. I have a location that is prime except one thing; water/sewer lines approx. 10 ft. below. Do you know if the nine bark has a horizontal root base or will I be full of regret in the upcoming years? The shrub is about 3 ft in diameter and and has some canes about 7 – 8 ft.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Curious. I can’t imagine it is a hazard to a 10-foot-deep pipe. I don’t think of it as especially deep-rooted, no.

  19. Terry says:

    I found little devil nine bark at a local feed store. The leaves closest to the stem are red/orange and pretty but, there are black spots on the leaves. Is this normal coloring for them? Thanks for any info!

    1. margaret says:

      Not normal, no, but probably not to worry about (except it will be ugly for now). There are many kinds of leaf spot diseases (caused by something fungal usually) — mostly not fatal just ugly. If the plant was in a pot till recently at a store it may have been stressed, or maybe your weather has contributed to splashing spores up onto the leaves from the soil etc. Make sure the plant doesn’t stress again — water regularly, and more than likely it will settle in and next season will be fine.

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