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SKIMMIA FOR THE UK GARDENER


Skimmias are evergreen shrubs growing to about 1m (3ft) high and roughly the same spread. They originate from Japan, China and spread West to the lower parts of the Himalayas. They are grown for their foliage and where male and female plants are present, for the female plant's berries. Ideal for small gardens, containers and gardeners who sometimes neglect their plants.

Water Butts from Harrod Horticultural

Use the checklist below to decide if a Skimmia is suited to your garden conditions.

  • They need semi-shade throughout the year and will tolerate full shade well. In very low light conditions the plant may become leggy. Their natural habitat is in forests and woods where low light levels are common. if they are grown in full sun the leaves will burn very easily.
     
  • Grow equally well in open ground and containers to an eventual size of 1m (3ft) height and spread.
     
  • They have a definite preference for slightly acidic soil although they can grow well in neutral soil with a little help. They do not grow well in alkaline soils. See here for more information on acid and alkaline soil.
     
  • Tolerate periods of drought especially when grown in the open ground. Their leaves are leathery and retain moisture well.
     
  • Tolerate neglect well mainly because their nutrient requirement are low and they grow well with no pruning.
     
  • They produce attractive flower buds from November and these open out into flowers March  / April.
     
  • If male and female Skimmias are planted together the females can produce attractive red berries in May to June. Male varieties will not produce berries.
     
  • All parts of Skimmia, including the berries, can cause discomfort if eaten.

DIFFERENT VARIETIES OF SKIMMIA


The most commonly found variety of Skimmia in the UK (and around the world) is Skimmia japonica. This is strong growing and probably the hardiest of all the varieties. It produces flower buds and flowers freely and it is difficult to see why you would choose any other variety. Because it is so commonly grown it is also the cheapest to buy in garden centres, online and in other shops.
 



There are three cultivars (types) of Skimmia japonica readily available in the UK and these are:

Skimmia japonica 'Rubella' - totally evergreen, strong growing and healthy. The leaves are deep green, leathery. In late winter it produces purple red flower buds freely which look good. In March / April the buds open up and cover the plant in masses of tiny white flowers. This plant is male.

Readily available to buy online from the GardenFocused recommended supplier, click here buy this Skimmia now.

Skimmia japonica 'Fragrans' - the same as Rubella above but the flower buds are a light pink / green and the flowers are white and cream. This plant is also male.

Skimmia japonica 'Nymans' - the same as Rubella above but the flowers are not quite as prolific. This is a female variety though and will produce red berries in autumn if fertilised by a nearby male variety. Readily available to buy online from the GardenFocused recommended supplier, click here if you want to buy Skimmia japonica 'Nymans' now.

Skimmia japonica shrub
A Skimmia japonica in flower (click to enlarge)

There are other Skimmias and the two most common are listed below:

Skimmia confusa ('Kew Green') - the same as Rubella above but the buds are lime green and the flowers more yellow. I'm never sure why this variety would be bought in preference to any of the above other than it's different. The others are more colourful and strong growing.

Skimmia reevesiana - different from all those above because this variety is hermaphrodite and produce berries without fertilisation from nearby male plants. The flowers are white and appear all over the plant in March / April. Red berries appear in late autumn and last for several months. Click here if you want to buy Skimmia reevesiana online now.

HOW TO CARE FOR A SKIMMIA


All Skimmias require the same care and luckily enough that is very minimal. These are plants which can stand a good degree of neglect although of course they do of the very best when treated correctly.

Skimmias can be grown equally well in pots or in the open ground.

Skimmia do best on a slightly acid soil. Before adding anything to the ground you need to know if your soil is acidic, neutral or alkaline. The best way to do this is to buy a soil testing kit online or from your local garden centre.

Alkaline or neutral ground can changed to be more acidic by adding sulphur. The finer the sulphur the quicker it will act, Flowers of Sulphur is a common name for very fine sulphur and is avaialable online or from most garden centres.

If your soil is alkaline I would recommend digging the soil to 30cm / 1 foot deep and adding half the recommended dose to the dug soil. Dig it in well, plant your skimmia and scatter the remaining half around the plant.

If your soil is neutral, just add the recommended dose to the soil surface and work it in gently with a trowel. Don't go overboard with the sulphur, it's easy to make the ground too acidic. Leave it a year and then add more next year if the skimmia shows signs of leaves yellowing.

You can add ericaceous compost instead although it's now believed that sulphur is best when planting skimmia in open ground.

Choose a position which is in semi-shade for all of the year, full shade is also fine as long as natural light reaches the plant. North facing garden situations are ideal for Skimmias, and not many other shrubs do well in these conditions.

If planted in reasonably good garden soil then that's it for your Skimmia, it will be more than happy to look after itself without any pruning, feeding or other care - truly a delightful shrub for the lazy gardener! They will last for around 20 years.

GROWING SKIMMIAS IN CONTAINERS


When planting a Skimmia in a container it's best to remember that the plant can easily last for twelve years and twenty years is a real possibility. With that in mind choose a good container which will look good for all that time and also frost hardy.

Our choice would be a plain terracotta pot because the colour contrasts with the foliage well. After a couple of years the pot will age with lichen and other green / brown marks and that looks fantastic, a real cottage garden appearance.

Plant in pots full of ericaceous compost for the correct soil acidity. Feed in March and August with an ericaceous plant food and water when conditions are dry. This will be more frequently needed from June to early September.

Rainwater is preferable over tap water as far as Skimmias are concerned. Tap water is often too alkaline and slightly acid water is preferable. Water from a water butt is the ideal solution for almost all container grown plants. Prune lightly after flowering to maintain shape and size.

Skimmia are fully frost hardy and survive harsh winters even when grown in containers. For safety though we move our container grown Skimmia next to the house from November to the end of February. This provides some protection from harsh winds and the house protects your plant from the worst of the deep frosts. Our plant has been growing for eight years in the Midlands very successfully with no more attention than that described above.

SKIMMIA PESTS AND DISEASES


Skimmias are very healthy plants and rarely suffer from pests or diseases. One pest which does occasionally occur is the spider mite. In truth, a healthy Skimmia will not be badly affected by these pests and they are best ignored. If you notice them on the leaves then a strong spray with insecticidal soap will clear most of them.

YELLOWING LEAVES ON SKIMMIA


One common complaint with Skimmias, discussed briefly above, is yellowing of leaves. See the picture below for a good example.

Leaf discoloration to yellow on Skimmia
Skimmia leaf yellowing

If you click the above picture it will enlarge and you can see that the middle leaf looks healthy whereas the two other leaves have yellow marks on them. In most cases this is caused by the plant not being able to absorb nutrients because the soil is too alkaline. The solution is to top up with ericaceous compost and feed with plant food for acid loving plants. The odd used tea bag worked onto the soil surface also does wonders to turn soil slightly more acidic.

If you know your Skimmia is growing in acidic soil but the leaves are still yellow the next possibility is a magnesium deficiency. This can affect a wide variety of plants and Skimmias are no exception. The solution is simple, add the correct amount of Epsom Salts to the ground surrounding the plant. You should notice a difference after a couple of months especially on new foliage.

A quick search on your favourite search engine ("Epsom salts and plants") will come up with several products for gardeners to counter a magnesium deficiency. Just make sure you buy one for plants because it is also used for horses and the dosage rate will be very different! Follow the instructions on the pack and don't over apply Epsom salts, too much can also cause problems.

The final cause of yellowing Skimmia leaves is too much sun. Skimmias prefer part shade conditions, full sun all day especially in warmer areas is not their preferred situation. With container grown Skimmias, the solution is easy, move the container to a more shaded position.

If the plant is growing in a border the only solution is to dig it up and move it. Skimmias are tough plants and can be moved with a high chance of success. The best time to move it is in late autumn but before the frosts arrive. If the plant is too big to move, prune it in spring and then move it in autumn, don't prune it in autumn.

Snails often enjoy munching on the leaves of Skimmia and after a wet spring they can do significant damage. They prefer the older leaves for some reason and the picture below shows this clearly.

Snail damage to a Skimmia
Significant damage caused by snails

The easiest solution to snail damage is either to regularly pick them off or scatter slug pellets around the area. For more information on snails see our page dedicated to this pest.

SKIMMIA SUMMARY


Below we list the key strengths and weaknesses of Skimmias.
 
HARDY 5 star hardiness rating(to -18°C)
   
CLAY SOIL No
SANDY SOIL Yes 
   
DRY SOIL No
   
SHADE Yes
   
EVERGREEN Yes
   
EASY CARE 5 easy care rating
SMALL GARDENS Yes
   
POT / CONTAINER Yes
   
FLOWERING 4 star flowering rating
   
FLOWER TIME March to May

Other "easy-care" shrubs and perennials in this series include Choisya, Hebes, Hellebore, Mock Orange, Lilacs, Potentilla and Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus). Click the link below for the full list of our shrub care guides.

COMMENTS / QUESTIONS LEFT BY OUR READERS

Date: 27 March 2017 From: Rona
QUESTION: When and how do I dead head the berries on my skimmia?

ANSWER: They will fall off naturally in a couple of weeks. However you can remove them whenever you want, it won't hurt the plant.


Date: 4 March 2017 From: Elizabeth F
QUESTION: Do you know if there is a variagated skimmia please?

ANSWER: Yes there are some. Skimmia japonica "Magic Marlot" is a good example.


Date: 21 February 2017 From: Phil
QUESTION: I have a skimmia japonica red diamind and would like to know if this is a male or female.

ANSWER: That's an unusual variety. I did some research and believe that Skimmia japonica 'Red Diamonds' has both male and female flowers. This means that it can produce berries as a stand alone plant. The source of that information is given below:
https://www.shootgardening.co.uk/plant/skimmia-japonica-red-diamonds


Date: 11 February 2017 From: Not Given
QUESTION: Why doesn't my female skimmia grow berries in winter? I've planted a male one beside her, but no luck.

ANSWER: The commonest reason is that the varieties you have bought are not as you thought. The labels may have been mixed up or the plants incorrectly identified. A second reason is that insects are not around at the correct time of year to pollinate the female. This could be caused by the position of the plants, a windy place is not good for pollination.


Date: 23 December 2016 From: Kay
QUESTION: If kept indoors, how often does Skimmia japonica need to be watered and how much water?

ANSWER: Skimmia japonica is strictly an outdoor shrub. I've never tried growing them indoors but I doubt that they would survive indoors for a year whatever level of water is given to them.


Date: 23 December 2016 From: Kay
QUESTION: Skimmia plants are currently on sale in garden centres, is it safe to plant them now (November) or wait till springtime.

ANSWER: They will be fine to plant out in November as long as the ground is not frozen. Just make sure you acclimatise them for a week to outside conditions. Some nurseries produce perfect looking plant which have not been hardened off.

They may look good but can be shocked by suddenly transplanting to open ground. See here for a little more about hardening off plants.


Date: 26 October 2016 From: Linda
QUESTION: I have a skimmia japonica 'Magic Marlot', is this male or female and do I need the other sex to get berries?

ANSWER: The variety skimmia japonica 'Magic Marlot' is male. To be absolutely clear, male skimmia japonica will not produce berries even if a female variety is nearby. Female skimmia japonica (such as 'Nymans') can produce berries if a male skimmia japonica is nearby.


Date: 2 November 2016 From: Not Given
QUESTION: Skimmia plants are currently on sale in garden centres, is it safe to plant them now (November) or wait till springtime.

ANSWER: They will be fine to plant out in November as long as the ground is not frozen. Just make sure you acclimatise them for a week to outside conditions. Some nurseries produce perfect looking plant which have not been hardened off.

They may look good but can be shocked by suddenly transplanting to open ground. See here for a little more about hardening off plants.


Date: 26 October 2016 From: Linda
QUESTION: I have a skimmia japonica 'Magic Marlot', is this male or female and do I need the other sex to get berries?

ANSWER: The variety skimmia japonica 'Magic Marlot' is male. To be absolutely clear, male skimmia japonica will not produce berries even if a female variety is nearby. Female skimmia japonica (such as 'Nymans') can produce berries if a male skimmia japonica is nearby.


Date: 2 September 2016 From: Linda
QUESTION: Have just re-potted my well established skimmia into ericaceous compost as most of the leaves are yellow - should I remove all the yellow leaves or will they turn back to green eventually?

ANSWER: Some may revert back to green but the majority will stay yellow and drop off when new leaves form. I would not remove the yellow leaves because they will still be capable of producing a small amount of energy - especially important because you have just re-potted it.


Date: 4 July 2016 From: Carol F
QUESTION: When can I transplant my Skimmia japonica Rubella, from border to container?

ANSWER: I would avoid transplanting when in flower but any other time of the year should be fine. Keep it watered well and keep it out of the midday sunshine.


Date: 2 July 2016 From: Jeanine
QUESTION: Can I prune my Skimmia now and how best to do it?

ANSWER: If you look at an established Skimmia you will notice that the foliage is all at the end of the stems. If you prune it, you will remove all the foliage and this may well cause problems. I have never tried it. It would all depend on how quick the lower shoots produce foliage after pruning. If that happens quickly the shrub may survive. If it takes too long the shrub will not be able to gain energy from the sun and may not survive.

My advice would be to try it only if you plan to throw the shrub away because it is too large.


Date: 4 June 2016 From: Joyce R
QUESTION: I would be grateful if you could advise me about a Skimmia whose leaves are yellowing as in your photo. It is planted in a large raised bed which is filled with ericaceous soil and planted with rhododendrons. I have fed with acid lovers feed and also tried tea bags but it hasn't solved the problem.

ANSWER: I have updated the pest and disease section above to include two more reasons why Skimmia leaves can turn yellow. Click here to skip to to that section.


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