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.

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.

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.

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.


  1. debkb says:

    I just got purchased Summer Wine to use in a bed that’s going through a bit of a renovation. Unfortunately the renovation comes after the loss of a beloved japanese maple, sob.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Debkb. Eek, a Japanese maple lost. I know, so painful; they are such treasures, but can object to rough winters or scorching summers or too much N or …. you name it. I grow mine in pots and push them into the garage in winter; I am a sissy. :) Nice to see you and do stop by again soon with news of the new bed.

  2. Brian G. says:

    I bought a tiny ‘coppertina’ last fall and it has already tripled in size. It is currently in a nursery bed till I decide where to place it. The change in the foliage color from early bud till now has been really astounding. Starting out as pale coppery orange and yellow and becoming now a deep burgundy or wine red, It’s like a fall show in reverse. Very beautiful. I learned of them here first, of course. Thank you kindly, Ma’m.

  3. 50s Pam says:

    This is just in time for some landscaping we’re doing this weekend! The more I see my other shrubs come in … the more I adore them. Dare I say: Even more than my perennials? These are gorgeous, Margaret, many thanks!

  4. Beckie says:

    Hello Margaret,
    I’ve recently abandoned (i.e. disposed of) my ‘Diablo’. During the past three summers, it developed a nasty, thick white powdery mold on its stems and leaves eventually causing the foliage to blacken, shrivel and die. (Nothing like a powdery mildew.) Love the shrub, but unfortunately not trouble-free for me–I garden in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario. Anyone with ideas on this affliction?
    BTW, I admire your website–it’s content-rich and packed with personality.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Beckie. Fascinating. I don’t see any references at first lscan of my books etc. about what you describe so will have to look around a bit deeper. Thanks for the good words, and sorry about your ninebark. Now I am curious…

  5. Lolo says:

    I love my Diablos but have been taken aback by how large they’re getting so it’s good to know I can have at them with the pruners. I agree that the peeling bark aspect is over marketed and that their real beauty is the foliage and blooms. Perhaps I’ll move one of them, once my aching back recovers from all the other digging and turning I’ve been doing.

  6. gail says:

    I have five coppertinas planted as a hedge along a street. Although they are very beautiful they also have developed a serious case of powdery mildew this year, although my summer wine is unaffected. I checked my friend’s coppertina and it also has mildew. I will have to check much earlier next year but I hate the thought of having to spray every year!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Gail. The plot thickens! I will do some digging for more info, and appreciate your added details. More later…

  7. Deborah says:

    I planted 2 coppertinas last year and they were lovely. However this year, I have noticed some small green caterpillars eating the leaves (which I promptly squished). Any ideas on what these are?

  8. Wendy says:

    I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’m not familiar with these shrubs…..but on the bright side…..a new plant to look into (and probably acquire)! And I might have just the spot ;-)

  9. Deborah says:

    Margaret, they are tiny and the leaf is rolled up around them. They are only on the very tender fresh leaves at the tip of the branch.

  10. Pat Webster says:

    The native physocarpus is in bloom now along the stream beside our house. It is in a shaded area so the white blossoms sparkle from the distance. The deer leave this ninebark alone, thank goodness.

  11. Brenda says:

    I’ve had a hedge of Diablo for about 5 years, with no mildew at all. Perhaps because it’s in full sun with good drainage and good air circulation.

    The deer eat it every year, and their natural “pruning” has caused it to be a dense, thick shrub about 6 foot tall. Not rangy in the least, probably due to the pruning.

    I also have Dart’s gold, but it gets sunburned every year. It’s in full sun, and I suspect it needs a little bit of shade for best coloring. Mine gets bleached out and then crispy.

  12. genatac says:

    Yes, yes, yes, I have had the same exact problem that becky had with the coppertina that I bought last year. I tried everything to get rid of that strange, crusty, white covering, brought examples of it to other gardeners, no one had a clue as to what it was. it’s not powdery mildew.Spraying is useless. It just hates getting wet. At the first rain, this stuff covers all but the top leaves, so now I just grow it straight up, no horizontals at all, because as soon as it gets bushy, and leaves touch each other, it gets diseased. I like it, so I keep it kind of isolated, but if anyone has a possible solution, I’d love to hear it.

  13. Beckie says:

    Great sleuthing, Margaret. I had not been able to find anything linking mildew/fungi/whatever to ninebark. Because the powder was so thick and white, covering entire leaves and stems, I assumed it was something other than a powdery mildew. The discarded ‘Diablo’ was not growing in a crowded area, but it was in full shade for at least half the day. Incidentally, two nearby ‘Summer Wine’ cultivars suffer minimally so they have a one-year extension.

  14. Eric says:

    One of my favorite plants that I have. It’s great to see the constant color changes. I just gave mine a serious trimming and I know it will probably need another this time next year. It’s such a good grower.
    If only I had a bigger yard!

  15. Fred from Loudonville, NY says:

    I have a pair of Ninebark Diablo on my front lawn. They are a tough bush. When I first planted them, they were PARTLY under my next door neighbor’s maple trees, that grew into my “Airspace”. Being kind of under trees, they had a slow growth habit the first few years, BUT looked fine. One day, my neighbor decided to take down his maple trees, and many heavy branches crushed my ninebarks. Being trashed, I gave then the best pruning, I could, to make them some what presentable. (they were reduced to about 3′ feet tall at that time) Now two years later, they are ALMOST perfectly shaped LARGE shrubs (about 10 tall and wide). The ninebark is a nice MID sized bush, that helps with the transition of plant life from the massive trees (30′ to 40′ tall, or more), to perennials and annuals, which are close to the groung(about 3′ tall, or less). (Stair stepping, if you think about it). (Margaret’s last photo of the “bush boarder” before the comments is a good example of what I am trying to describe). The ninebarks, having maroon, or crimson colored foliage, also matches the color of large maples on my neighbors land (kind of a borrowed landscape), and they pick up the same hue, at ground level, of the Palace Purple Heuchera. To me it is important to break up the GREEN foliage of most plants, with crimsons foliage. Crimson (red) is opposite to (green) on the color wheel. The sand cherry, weigela, barberry, and the red foliaged Harry Lauder’s walking stick, to name a few, are all plants, that can come with burgundy -crimson-maroon foliage.

  16. gail says:

    Margaret, that is what my coppertinas look like with the powdery mildew. I have been spraying with a mild baking soda/horticultural oil solution once a week for 3 weeks now which doesn’t get rid of it but hopefully prevents further spread. My shrubs are in full sun on a corner with full air circulation, and the mildew started before this last bout of wet weather. In fact, we had hot dry weather for a couple weeks before the rain started. Also, I do not have irrigation.

    1. Margaret says:

      @Gail: Any plant that experiences uneven watering/drought spells will definitely be more prone to mildew, so your scenario sounds like the profile. It can get really crusty and severe on some plants. Perhaps easier to prevent that to cure once started; some rose experts I know actually start the spray BEFORE any signs happen, as a routine, each mid-spring or so.

  17. genatac says:

    Yes- that’s it. Mystery solved. My coppertina has plenty of space and light, it does get hot as hades though, so I will commence with the spraying again. Thanks a bunch.

  18. Janine says:

    Ah, Margaret, I so love reading about your plant preferences. I have a Ninebark Summer Wine and intended to put in several more. Although now I think I should consider Diablo since I have a spacious 3 1/2 acres in need of beautification!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Janine. Both are nice, and using them gives you a same-but-different sense because of their similar looks but not identical sizes. Kind of mixes it up a little. Thanks for you kind words, and see you soon again.

  19. Kathleen says:

    I planted a great new diablo Ninebark about a week ago. and I have been watering it regularly. It is hot today, and the tops of the branches are drooping. I just gave it a good soak yesterday, so I’m unsure whether I should water it again. I don’t want to overwater it. Will it bounce back when the heat of the day is gone?

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Kathleen. It’s hard for a plant to get settled in after root disturbance, especially in summer, so some wilting of the soft tissue is often seen. Do not overwater; that can be problematic, too, as sodden soil can deprive the roots of the oxygen they need to function. I think of it like a person after surgery: they are going to be fine, but are a little thrown off by the experience. See you soon again.

  20. Chris says:

    I would like to know if I can prune my ninebark now (end of July) or should I wait till the end of the fall? If I can prune now, can I cut down to say 3′ approx.? Thanks to anyone who can help with some info.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Chris. Not ideal to hard prune in high summer or even in fall, since it will prompt new soft tissue that will have a hard time in winter (not tough enough, not “hardened off” in time). I’d rejuvenate in early spring…see why in my pruning FAQ page. See you soon again.

  21. Kathleen says:

    Thanks for your input on the Ninebark. It is doing great. Any advice on growing a Royal Purple Smoketree in a pot? It is only about 12″ high right now, was given to me by a friend with no place to plant it. I am not certain where I want it yet and would like to have it in a pot for now. What would be the best way to overwinter it in a pot? I am in Nebraska, zone 5. thanks… Kathleen

  22. Adam says:

    This is the first time on your website and I just wanted to say that it has been very helpful. Thanks for your insight and I look forward to visiting more in the future.
    Happy Gardening!

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Lorraine. My ninebarks are all awake, in varying stages of starting to leaf out. However, there is always ratty, dead wood here and there. Are the twigs flexible or brittle (the latter means dead)? Are there any signs of life down at the base — any new shoots emerging or anything? Is it newly planted, maybe last fall?

  23. Lorraine says:

    Uh oh! Twigs brittle. Checked base and see nothing. Planted for me as a Mother’s Day gift last year. :-( Thanks Margaret for responding

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