great shrubs: kerria japonica ‘picta’

kerria-japonica-pictaT HERE IS A BIG CLOUD OF THE LOUDEST, EGG-YOLK GOLD in a shady part of my garden now, the kind of botanical scream that says spring is really here. The variegated Kerria is reminding me that despite its delicate green stems and tiny foliage, that it’s somebody, too: somebody worth having around. Even after more than 15 years together, I haven’t tired of this basically carefree creature. My first in a new series on great landscape shrubs: Kerria japonica ‘Picta.’

My plant came home with me in the early 1990s from Western Hills Nursery in Northern California, which still sells it today (including by mail, apparently).

kerria-detailMuch smaller on all fronts than the all-green Kerria japonica, and with single (not the bawdier puffy double) flowers, K.j. ‘Picta’ is an airy thing, perhaps 4 or 5 feet tall. Because it’s a bit of a colonizer, the potential width varies greatly; mine is now 10 feet across. I dig up suckers and share them or move them to another part of the garden, if it gets too wide, and a few times over the years when it was looking thin, I simply cut the whole thing to the ground, which it seems to like as a means of rejuvenation.

Cutting out of twigs that revert to the plain green-leaved species will also be asked of you, but I do not find this much of a commitment for such a pleasing companion.

In winter, as with all Kerria, you will have a haze of green twigs; nice enough, I suppose, but they are not as bold as say twig dogwoods or willows.

I grow it instead for its bawdy, intermittent bloom (the heaviest right now for several weeks, then fits and starts depending on the weather). I grow it, too, for the delicate gray-green leaves that are margined in cream, and when they open the plant gives a sense of a mad haze of light—not big, bold variegated leaves that can be overpowering to some eyes, but just droplets of brightness here and there.

K.j. ‘Picta’ would be good massed in a spot where not much in the way of other shrubbery wants to offer color all season long, or just included an individual plant as I have in a semi-shaded mixed border. Give it partial shade, especially from afternoon heat—how many heavy-blooming shrubs can say they’ll offer so much in half-day light?

about my ‘great shrubs’

I AM A BIT of a shrub-freak; looking around here at the garden these days, I realize how much so. It’s time to document them and share them in plant profiles like this one, but meantime, there are already many other shrub posts in the archives:

Ones on viburnums, and lilacs, and Cornus mas and spicebush and other Forsythia alternatives, and giant pussy willow and winterberry hollies, and panicle hydrangeas, and bottlebrush buckeye, and a couple of conifers: the golden prostrate yew and Microbiota, for instance. I can’t even recall them all; I’ve started to gather my favorites under “great shrub” at this link. Enjoy.

  1. I love my Kerria, too, and just an hour ago cut it back to the ground to rejuvenate it because there was so much dead wood. I had planned to do it a month ago, but you know how that goes. It will still come back, as good as new.

    Another great feature… it is a great cover for birds. I found a bird’s nest in mine, from last year. Don’t know what kind of bird, perhaps gold finches?

  2. Rosella says:

    I have one too! I love it — the colour is such a shock in the shady part of my garden, and I love to cut its long graceful branches for flower arrangements. Hmmm — never thought of cutting it back though. First time I ever saw it was in the cathedral in Bordeaux, in a large vase elevated on a stand in front of the altar. It stopped me dead with its pure gorgeousness, and I had to go chase someone to find out its name.

  3. Country Gardener says:

    Hmmm, don’t have a Kerria. The doubles have always looked to me like shrubby dandelions. Maybe I could go for this single-flowered one… Looking forward to your shrub series.

  4. Ailsa says:

    Yes, I have that one! After hearing about it somewhere and asking for it at the nursery, they said, “you can’t grow that here!” I found it at another nursery labelled, “Miscellaneous shrubs” for less than $10 — don’t you love it when that happens! But in a protected spot, it does very well. However, I tired of it last year (it was travelling as it is wont to do) and cut it back quite drastically — so far I’m not sure if it has decided to come back. I’ll check this weekend when I have a minute!

  5. Brian G. says:

    I am waiting for delivery of a new variegated variety called ‘Fubuki Nishiki’. Got them from Lazy S’s. They supposedly have a larger variegated leaf than ‘picta’ as well as somewhat variegated flowers (striped cream and yellow). I love Kerria, even the pom-pom doubles, and had to try these. I’ll let you know if they are weird or wonderful.

  6. Leslie says:

    I had one. a “bit of a colonizer” you say. Mine thought it was Attilla the Hun or the British at the height of the Empire. I eventually revolted and killed the beast. But it is lovely where it has the space to be itself

  7. Kathy says:

    I bought one at the NY Botanical Garden and it really lights up my shady garden. I love the plant combination in your photo, I might have to copy.

  8. Ted says:

    I’ve got the plain green single flowered form and always enjoy it. It does tend to die back a bunch each winter, but I just chop it down and it blazes back. On my list of things to try is it’s white flowered cousin – Rhodotypos scandens, Black Jetbead.

  9. Jen says:

    I wonder if that’s the same thing I saw growing “wild” in the woods next to the little league field – would it just pop up somewhere ike that?! I also love whatever is growing next to it in your photo with the big saucer-shaped leaves!

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Jen. The large-leaved thing is Astilboides tabularis, just starting to size up (leaves will get much bigger, as seen here). I don’t think Kerria would just pop up, no, but what used to be where the field now is?

  10. Connie says:

    My double plain leaved double blossomed Kerri is gorgeous right now in my shade garden in the Comox Valley,Vancouver Island British Columbia. Kerri Japonica was a favourite shrub of my father-in-law who urged me to plant it. I’m enjoying the splash of colour , as well as it’s rekindling the memories of a caring man who introduced me to many wonderful plants

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Connie. I love hearing stories of how people come to love a certain plant (often through a beloved person). Nice. You are in prime garden territory, that’s for sure (jealous!). See you soon again I hope.

  11. Dee/reddirtramblings says:

    I do love my Kerrias. I have the double flowering one, the single and the variegated. They are all blooming right now, and I’m so glad. Such a grand touch of yellow they have. They perform in sun or shade here, and that is a wonderful thing. Yours is beautiful Margaret.~~Dee

  12. DD says:

    I am a new fan of your blog – and so perhaps you’ve already covered this subject. My 1/3 acre corner lot has over 20 trees – there’s hardly any space with sun for more than an hour or so. Is it permitted to cut down a not-so-nice tree that is bullying/crowding three others and thus will give me a few more hours of sun – so I could maybe grow a few beans or tomatoes? (wow – that sure was a long sentence…)

  13. Frances Seth says:

    I had a yellow one for 20 years which died suddenly two years ago. Since it was near a PJM, I didn’t mind. However, I missed it and got a white one. It’s nice but the single yellow one is better. I got another one of those. I like its informal habit.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Frances Seth. I think I would miss mine, too. :) Nice to see you and do come visit again soon.

  14. nancy says:

    have you heard of a variety kerria mountain top shandale?
    just picked three up at a close out sale for $3 a piece.
    how much room do I need and how much sun and shade

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Nancy, with the Deal of the Day! Good for you. I suspect they will get to about 5 feet high and wide, so space accordingly (I have read 3-5 feet but I don’t believe anything stays at 3 feet). Don’t know where you live, but here they can be in half shade or even more if need be, but half is great. Lucky you. See you soon again.

  15. Georgina says:

    I have a few of the double flowering kerria’s and one of them seems to be turning yellow with brown spots on it. Do you know what the problem can be this is the first time this has happened since I have had them.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Georgina. I haven’t had the problem often, but Kerria (like many plants) can get leaf spot in damp years or where there isn’t good air circulation. Fungal things like that may not injure the plant permanently in most cases, but will look awful this year. If you are concerned that the twigs look nasty, too, you can cut out the wrost of them and Kerria will bounce back. I’d wait to do that till earliest spring.

  16. nancy sessions says:

    My itea right now, Nov.7, is a glorious red almost sparkling. As it grows the offshoots are easy to pull out and will take hold quickly, Zone 6.
    A question—How to prune abelia? Thanks. Your web site is certainly fun.
    I have a very favorite nursery, sunlightgardens.com. It specializes in wildflowers and seems to have not only the lowest prices but also the largest healthy plants !!!It is surprizingly in the same zone as we are in ct.

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Nancy. Thanks for the catalog recommendation. Not sure the goal of the pruning, but if it is overgrown and leggy, I’d thin out the oldest stems right to the ground and let some of the younger ones take over. Hope to see you again soon.

  17. greenlake says:

    About 12 years ago, I bought a Kerria Japonica at Lowes for a couple of dollars. I planted it in semi shade and the next year, I was astonished by it’s beauty. I went back to buy more and they didn’t even know what I was talking about..I came home and pulled some shoots out from around the edge and planted them..In a couple of years they were just beautiful..So now I have about 50 Kerria Japonica, aka The Yellow Rose of Texas..all from the original buss and all beautiful. Everyone asks about them and I have given a lot of starts to my neighbors..

    1. Margaret says:

      Welcome, Greenlake. The yellow rose of Texas, indeed! :) I am about to dig a chunk out of mine for a shady spot that needs so help…so you are reminding me to get to it. See you soon again here, I hope.

  18. greenlake says:

    I just wonder..If you plant one of these in a pot, how big would the pot have to be to keep them from geting root bound?

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