Photinia is a broadleaf evergreen shrub that can come with striking red coloring on the new leaves. As the shrub matures, the foliage takes on a deep, leathery green appearance. Many people choose to use this plant as a privacy screen or hedge due to the dense growth habit. However, fungal leaf spot can quickly cause your plant to die back, so it’s important that you routinely monitor your photinia and plant them far enough apart that they get good airflow. You can shape this shrub into a small specimen tree, and it has a fast growth rate at one to three feet a year. To get the best results, you want to plant it in late fall or early spring.
At the peak blooming time, this shrub produces small cream or white hued flowers that cover it. However, the flowers do have an unpleasant odor to them, so many gardeners prefer to prune the plant before the flowers open. If you leave the flowers to bloom, they give want to small red berry-like fruit that can stay on the plant throughout the winter months.
There are disagreements about photinia’s toxicity. While some hybrids aren’t included on the office list of plants that are toxic to grazing animals, humans, or pets, the berries can be mildly toxic if ingested, and seriously toxic to grazing animals like horses or cattle.
These eye-catching shrubs are a favorite to showcase in a large yard with plenty of sunlight as a specimen plant.
Photinia – General Overview
|Attracts:||Birds, bees and other pollinators|
|Bloom Time:||Spring to fall|
|Common Diseases:||Root rot, fire blight, powdery mildew, and leaf spot|
|Common Pests:||Scale, mites, and European fruit-tip moths|
|Exposure:||Full sun to partial shade|
|Flower and Foliage Color:||White, red, and green|
|Hardiness Zones:||Seven to nine|
|Height:||12 to 15 feet|
|Native to:||Eastern Asia|
|Planting Depth:||Same as the root ball for transplants|
|Plant Type:||Woody shrub|
|Soil pH:||6.0 to 7.5|
|Spacing:||Five to eight feet|
|Spread:||8 to 10 feet|
|Time to Maturity:||Two years|
|Tolerance:||Alkaline and poor soils|
|Uses:||Specimen trees, hedges, and privacy plantings|
Photinia Cultivation and History
The genus name from this plant comes from the Greek word photeinos, and this means shiny. This name is a reference to the glossy, pretty foliage, something every plant in the genus shares. It’s common to grow the more eye-catching photinia plants as an ornamental shrub or specimen tree in your yard. The red-tipped variety is very popular, and they’re native to the temperate areas of Asia, including Japan. According to a retired horticulturist from the University of Arkansas, Gerald Klingaman, this plant was first documented by Ollie W. Fraser in 1940.
Popular Photinia Types
There are many popular types of photinia around that you can choose from, and some of the more bold-colored ones include:
- Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’: This is the most popular cultivar that gets between 9 and 12 feet tall at full maturity, and it has a slightly smaller spread. It’s a very compact cultivar that does well in hedges.
- Photinia × fraseri ‘Little Red Robin’: This cultivar is very similar to Red Robin in looks, but it’s much smaller as it has a height and spread of two or three feet at most.
- Photinia × fraseri ‘Pink Marble‘: This is a slightly newer cultivar to the market, but it features rose pink leaves with white margins. It will get between 7 and 14 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet high at full maturity.
If you get the care right when your plant is small, they’ll be able to establish a very strong root system that makes them more tolerant to drought.
The key to being successful when you grow photinia shrubs is to give them a spot that offers great air circulation and a soil that drains well. Soggy conditions are breeding grounds for diseases that can be deadly to your plant. If you are planting several shrubs side by side to form a hedge, make sure to account for the plant’s mature size. You need to leave space for the air to circulate around each plant, so they should be at least five feet apart.
Pruning will be one of your main tasks when this plant, and you want to do so annually to encourage good airflow and thin the growth throughout your plant. Prune your plant when it goes dormant in the winter months. If you did so in the spring, this would encourage both new growth and fungal infections. Mature leaves are much more resistant, and the other important care instructions are:
This ornamental shrub usually doesn’t need you to apply fertilizer unless you have extremely poor soil. When you need to feed the shrub, use an organic, slow-release fertilizer in early spring right as new growth starts.
Generally speaking, photinia have a broad tolerance to sunlight exposure. It can tolerate full shade, but this will limit how much it flowers. In hotter climates, this shrub thrives when you give it partial shade, with an emphasis on protection from the hot sun. It’s best to plant it in east or north-facing positions. If you live in a cooler climate, try to give it full sun.
This plant prefers well-drained, loamy soil with a planting site that offers excellent air circulation. Heavy, clay-based soil should get amended with 50% compost before you plant to loosen it up.
You want to continue draining the soil and add fertilizer or amend your soil if your situation calls for it throughout the spring and summer months. Once your plant is fully mature, you won’t need to work with this plant as often to keep it healthy.
Temperature and Humidity
Photinia do very well planted in zones seven to nine as long as they have good airflow to help prevent fungal disease issues. It won’t do well if you plant it in very humid, wet environments. When you plant it in a location that has shelter from strong winds and good air circulation, it can survive fairly well in zone six.
Water your photinia once a week at the base of the plant when it’s hot and dry out, and try to avoid splashing water on the leaves. This shrub does best with an inch of water a week, including irrigation and rainfall, especially for the first two years. Once it establishes itself, you can cut back on the watering as this plant is relatively resistant to drought. You want to water your established photinias every other week when it’s not super hot or dry out. If it is, increase it to once a week.
Many photinias are hybrid plants, and this means that they won’t grow a true seed. So, the best way to propagate many of them is to use stem cuttings. This will give you a clone of the original plant, including identical characteristics. You can also buy transplants from your local nursery.
To use a cutting to propagate your new plant, you’ll need to save a piece that has a minimum of three leaf nodes. There are several ways you can propagate photinia from a cutting, but it’s easiest to do so using a semi-hardwood cutting in midsummer, ideally from a space where the stems have just started to mature. You can save healthy cuttings when you do your pruning too.
You want to take a six to eight inch cutting from any new growth area on the shrub, but it’s a good idea to look for a space where it’s started to harden. Remove the leaves from the lower half of your cutting, and get your pot ready. You’ll fill the pot with a mix of perlite and vermiculite and water it in. Your pot should be roughly six inches in diameter for one or two cuttings. Before you plant, dip the end of the cutting into rooting hormone powder and tap it to remove any excess before you place your cutting two to four inches into the soil.
If you’re planting multiple cuttings, make sure they don’t touch. Allow your plant to root indoors or in a protected spot that gets indirect sunlight. Keep the porous soil moist at all times to encourage strong root growth.
It can take between 4 and 20 weeks for your photinia to produce new growth. Once it appears, you can gently tug on the stem to see where the roots are. If you feel resistance, your new cutting is ready to transplant. You can transplant your cuttings late in the summer months or in early spring in a well–draining soil and a partially sunny spot.
Cuttings are one of the easiest ways to propagate photinia, but you have to have patience because it can take up to five months for it to root properly.
It’s also common to purchase a transplant from a nursery. Whether you want to plant a photinia that you grew from a cutting or you purchased a potted specimen, there are a few things you can do to help ensure it grows.
If the spot you pick out gets full to partial shade, you want to dig the hole twice as wide and deep as the potted plants, so usually 12 inches deep and wide. Backfill it halfway, add some organic matter like leaf mold or compost, and mix it in. Remove the shrub from the container, set it in the hole, and backfill it with soil.
Make sure the top of the potted plant or soil is at ground level, and you may have to remove or add soil as needed. Continue backfilling and water it well after you finish. If you’re growing several plants to create a hedge, you want to space them roughly five feet apart. In shape spots or when you don’t want a hedge form, you should give them even more space to promote airflow and prevent fungal infections.
Photinia Pruning and Maintenance
Most of the plants in the photinia genus can withstand heavy shearing, and this is one of main reasons why it thrives as a privacy screen. You won’t need to do any specific training or pruning to control this plant’s shape as it tends to form a very pleasing shape by itself. Lightly pruning the shoot tips off every year will encourage it to produce new leaves. This will also halt flower production, and this isn’t a bad thing as this plant produces flowers that don’t have the best smell. Pruning this way also gets rid of the ornamental fruit production.
If you have an overgrown plant, you can cut it back to the ground in the fall months and it’ll put on new growth in the spring. If you decide to cultivate this plant in a larger form, you can prune back any competing shoots around the central leader to shape the tree into your desired form. You can prune the shrub twice a year like this, ideally in the early spring months.
For this plant to give you the fullest look, you have to protect it against the winter cold in the northern end of the hardiness range. Any gardeners growing photinia in zones six and seven should cover the root crown with a thick layer of dry mulch, like brushwood, straw, or leaves. You should wrap the individual shoots in burlap, but this isn’t necessary in warmer zones.
Along with the issue with fungal problems, there are some less severe issues to keep an eye on with this plant.
Leaves Aren’t Red
There are two conditions that can prevent certain cultivars from displaying red leaves in the spring months: cold spring weather that nips the buds or not enough sun. Certain cultivars require enough sun and a sheltered location to grow well.
Plants Smell Awful
The flowers on these plants are notorious for releasing a bad odor. To prevent it from flowering, you can do a rigorous pruning in the spring to help stimulate new pretty leaf growth while stripping away the flower buds.
Shrub is too Sparse
If you don’t prune your shrub regularly, it can grow leggy and tall at the expense of the dense foliage that most people want. Hard renewal pruning sessions, followed by an annual lighter prune of all of the stems by ⅓ of their total length, will restore the shrub to the best look possible.
This shrub doesn’t have a lot of common issues outside of fungal infections, but you can take precautions to reduce the chances of the shrub developing them.
How to Get Red Tip Photinia to Bloom
Because this plant’s attraction is the foliage, it’s common to prune this plant a lot to encourage repeated new leaf production. This will also reduce the flowers that smell unpleasant. However, if you want your photinia to flower to get the fruits in the fall and winter months, you should only prune it back in the winter because the flowers come with new growth in the spring, and make sure your plants get enough sunlight.
This plant also requires shelter to protect the flower buds. A lot of gardeners in zones six and seven find that it helps to wrap the shrub in burlap during the winter months to ensure spring flower buds and leaf growth. If you want to encourage flower growth on the shrub, the small red fruits will hang on through the winter and feed the birds.
Managing Pests and Disease
Unfortunately, photinia has problems when it comes to disease and pests. Fungal diseases are a huge issue with these shrubs, and this is why many landscapers hesitate to use them as part of a formal hedge planting. Fortunately, most animals will leave them alone, most likely due to the unpleasant scent the flowers emit.
There are several diseases that plague photinia plants, and they can devastate the shrub if you don’t catch it in time. They include:
Fire blight is a bacterial disease the Erwinia amylovora causes. If your plant gets infected, cankers will form on the wood and leak a brown, water substance. Adequate air circulation and proper watering practices are enough to deter it. Open flowers are very common infection sites, and it’ll spread rapidly to the wood. You can use a copper spray on the flowers in the spring to help control it.
Entomosporium maculatum causes this fungal disease, and it’s a very severe problem for photinia, and it’s most common during periods of wet, cool weather. As the name suggests, it’ll cause small red spots to appear on the leaves, and heavily diseased foliage will exhibit growing blotches of maroon. It’s very noticeable when the leaves take on their deep green coloring.
Eventually, the affected leaves will fall from the plant, and it can easily spread to multiple plants by the time you notice it. Spores spread by water and air, so providing great circulation and watering at ground level are the best ways to prevent this disease from taking hold. You may treat severe infections with a fungicide like myclobutanil or thiophanate-methyl.
You’ll apply these sprays to the shrubs, and they’ll give you between two and three weeks of protection before you have to reapply them. It’s common to control the infection after the first application though. Any affected plant parts should get removed and disposed of to prevent further spread.
Powdery mildew is also another common issue with photinia, and you can prevent these fungal diseases by providing adequate spacing. Keep the leaves of your shrubs dry and remove any impacted foliage you spot.
Root rot is very common in photinia, and there are several species of fungi that can cause it, including Rhizoctonia and Pythium genera fungi, or by water molds. Poorly drained soil or too much fertilizer are common causes of this problem, but you may not notice it until the leaves start to turn yellow and wilt. Root rot can be very challenging to get rid of once it takes hold, and buying disease-free plants and providing good drainage are essential elements to prevent it.
Although fungal diseases are the top issue photinia has, there are a few insects who will cause problems too. They include:
European Fruit-Tip Moth
European Fruit-Tip moths are also called the peach moth or oriental fruit moth, and they’re native to China. This moth will attack a range of plants in the rose family, including photinia. They cause the most damage to new shoots, but the damage from the larval form can cause the leaves and fruit to drop from the shrub. In most instances, you can ignore this pest as it rarely causes enough damage to worry about.
A few types of mites are very common pests for photinia plants. They can cause stippling of the foliage, and the leaves will eventually fall off and die as it progresses. Fortunately, most mites are easy to control by applying a basic neem oil mix, but if you take preventative care steps, you can typically avoid large infestations.
Scale insects get the name from the shell-like waxy covering that protects their body. They look like small bumps on the plants, and they usually have a brown coloring. They won’t damage your shrub in smaller numbers, but a larger infestation can cause your plants to have very stunted growth. You can control scale infestations by adding a rubbing alcohol scrub and applying it to your plants. You can also release beneficial insects like lacewings and ladybugs into the area as they eat the scale insects when they get to the larval stage. You can also use neem oil or an insecticidal soap.
Photinia Frequently Asked Questions
Even though this is a relatively low-maintenance shrub, it’s common for new gardeners to have questions regarding its care.
1. How can you use photinia in the landscape?
With the pretty foliage, it’s common to use photinia as a specimen shrub, and you’ll give it a very visible location in your landscape. It also works well in sunny but sheltered borders and it makes a nice informal hedge with light pruning.
2. How long does a photinia live?
If you perform occasional restoration pruning and cut it back to the ground, it will live for decades unless it falls prey to a fungal disease.
3. Can you save a shrub that lost its foliage?
Any shrub that loses all of the foliage is likely battling the leaf spot disease called Entomosporium maculatum. Through repeated and intense treatment with a fungicide, you may be able to save it. You’ll also have to cut it back to the ground level and start again in the spring.
If you want a low-maintenance, useful, and pretty shrub for your landscape, try photinia. These are very popular hedging plants because they grow very well and offer privacy to your space. As long as you follow this quick guide, you should be able to grow a strong and healthy photinia for years to come.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.