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RED ROBIN (PHOTINIA)


The technical name for this shrub is Photinia x fraseri 'Red Robin'. Photinias, as a group plants are native to North America and Asia. Photinia x fraseri is named because it was first discovered as a seedling in Fraser Nurseries in Birmingham Alabama in 1943. The particular hybrid 'Red Robin' was bred in New Zealand and is the most popular of all the Photinias by a large margin. It retains the red leaves and at the same time is the most compact of them all.

This shrub is often under-rated principally because it is so widely grown. The RHS are quite clear that this is a shrub of great horticultural value, giving it an Award of Garden Merit.

Photinia x fraseri Red Robin
Picture Copyright Notice
Red Robin in a bush shape

Use the checklist below to decide if a Red Robin is suited to your preferences and garden conditions:

  • An evergreen shrub which, if not pruned, reaches a height of 4m / 13ft with a similar spread. Red Robin grows at a rate of about 30cm / 1ft per year when established. It responds very well to pruning and can easily be kept to a height 1.2m / 4ft.
     
  • It is fully hardy in almost all areas of the UK withstanding temperatures down to -12°C. In protected position, it is hardy to a few degrees lower.
     
  • Main interest is from bright red leaf tips which turn green as they mature. If left unpruned the previous year, it produces masses of tiny white flowers in June. The flowers are attractive but the scent is not!
     
  • All soils except heavy clay or waterlogged conditions are suitable. It does best in a deep loam type soil although this is not essential.
     
  • It prefers full sun although also does well in partial shade. Avoid full shade positions.
     
  • Once established, it rarely requires watering and will tolerate moderate drought.
     
  • A very versatile shrub, it can be grown as a specimen plant, singly in containers, as a hedge or against a wall / fence. It makes a vey attractive standard plant. It is not suitable as a barrier hedge because it has no thorns and can easily be parted.
     
  • Disease resistance is good with the exception of leaf spot. See our section below on pests and diseases of this shrub for top tips about avoiding this problem.

HOW TO PLANT A NEW RED ROBIN


Follow the steps below to ensure your Photinia Red Robin is planted correctly and in the best position:
  • Choose a full sun to partial shade position. The plant needs some air circulation so although it will thrive against a wall or fence, avoid planting it in the corner of two walls fences.
     
  • If the soil is heavy or is not free draining add lots of well rotted compost to the area and dig it in well.
     
  • It can be planted all year long if the soil is not frozen and you can water well when conditions are dry. Mid March to April and mid September to October are the best times to plant this shrub.
     
  • Dig a hole twice the width of the rootball. Sprinkle in a handful of blood, fish and bone and work into the ground.
     
  • Place the plant into the hole, filling in with soil so that it is at the same depth as was in the pot. Fill around the rootball and firm the soil down gently but firmly. Water well to settle the surrounding ground around the rootball.

If you want to grow Photinia Red Robin as a hedge, individual plants should be about 75cm (2ft 6in)apart for a quick growing dense hedge. When grown against a wall or fence then the plants should be at least 60cm / 2ft from the wall or fence. If they are planted any nearer they may suffer from lack of moisture at the roots because the base of walls and fences will not receive as much rainfall as in an open position.

CARE OF PHOTINIA RED ROBIN


When established a Photinia Red Robin will look after itself. It rarely needs watering except in severe drought and will grow quite happily on average ground without the need of additional feeds. It will need pruning once or twice a year to keep it in shape and to size.

A nicely pruned Photinia Red Robin
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For younger plants up to two years old, water if conditions become dry. A twice yearly feed with blood, fish and bone in spring and autumn will help it to establish a good root system. Keep the area around the base of the plant free from weeds and grass.

Red Robins do have a tendency to drop leaves throughout the year and for those who like to keep their gardens tidy this can mean frequent sweeping up. Where the fallen leaves accumulate at the base of the plant, this will provide an ideal hiding place for slugs and snails.

HOW AND WHEN TO PRUNE RED ROBINS


The frequency of pruning depends on the shape and size you want the plant to grow to. Without pruning, Red Robin will grow quite happily and form a bush sized about 4m / 13ft high and wide after seven years or so. 

For those of you who prefer a small shrub then pruning can be done any time between March and mid July. We wouldn't advise pruning after late July because the young shoots which appear after pruning may well be soft and easily damaged by early frosts. We would not prune these shrubs until they reach 3 or more years old.

Our suggested routine would be an annual prune in early to mid June when the flowers are dead or dying down. If you prune at this time of year you will be likely to have flowers again the next year.

Flowers of Photinia x fraseri Red Robin
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June flowers on a Red Robin plant

Conventional wisdom says to prune individual stems just above a leaf node. In our experience though no special techniques are necessary. In fact we have taken a hedge trimmer to prune ours without any bad effects at all. Whatever method you use, it seems the plant sprouts healthy new red shoots.

A commonly asked question is how far back can I prune an overgrown Red Robin? They can be cut cut back very severely and in our experience they always come back. An out of control plant can be pruned back to 60cm / 2ft high. The best time to do this type of drastic pruning is in May time when the plant is growing strongly.

If you have any cut flowers in the house when you prune your Red Robin, use the red leaves as foliage in the plant arrangement. It looks lovely.

GROWING RED ROBINS IN CONTAINERS


A single Red Robin will grow very happily in a large container. A diameter of 45cm or more is about right. Fill with either standard multi-purpose compost or a John Innes type loam. 

The plant should be fed monthly between mid March to mid August with a handful of blood, fish and bone. It will of course require regular watering. Wait each time until the top 3cm of the compost is dry and then water well.

Pruning is as described above although you may to prune more frequently to keep the plant to shape and an appropriate size for the container. It does help if the shrub is in a heavy container to avoid it easily being blown over.

PESTS AND DISEASES OF RED ROBINS


Red Robins are healthy plants rarely being attacked by pests. The one failing is their weakness to leaf spot problems. 



LEAF SPOT OF RED ROBIN


The symptoms of this problem are dark red / black spots on the leaves. Affected leaves eventually fall off and in bad cases the plant can severely affected. The latest research indicates that in most cases the damage is caused by damp, humid and / or cold conditions rather than disease. 

Leaf Spot on Photinia fraseri Red Robin
Image copyright notice

Where the plant is only partially affected the solution is to remove spotted leaves and burn them as soon as they are noticed.  Where the damage is more severe you have two choices:

  • prune back hard in mid May, remove all the prunings and in all likelihood the plant will bounce back with new red growth in a month or so.
     
  • accept the fact that the position of the plant is the cause, dig it up and plant something there which can cope better. You may want to take cuttings before you do this, read our section below on propagation.

Photinia Red Robin large bush
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We have noticed that it is the shaded side of plants which are most affected. The above photo shows the sun side of a Red Robin which is totally unaffected by leaf spot. The shade side was affected, but only to a minor degree.

Photinia Red Robin foliage



HONEY FUNGUS AND RED ROBIN


This fungal disease spreads underground from plant / tree to other other plants / trees. It attacks the root system and causes it to gradually be unable to absorb moisture and nutrients. The key signs are a generally unhealthy plant with white fungus appearing near ground level on the stems. If you dig carefully to roots under the ground the white material will be clearer on the roots.

In all likelihood your Photinia will not be the only shrub affected, although Photinias are particularly susceptible. We suggest you research this disease online / in books because it is extremely difficult to eradicate. Often the only course of action is to dig up and burn the affected shrubs and plant those which are resistant to honey fungus.

HOW AND WHEN TO PROPAGATE RED ROBINS


Red Robins are easy to propagate and the chances of success, even for very amateur gardeners, are very high. The following guidelines will ensure the best outcome:
  • Take the cuttings in late July to early September time. If the bush is some distance away take a plastic bag to store the cuttings in and prevent moisture loss. Also, take the cutting longer than needed and make the final cut (see below) when you are ready to plant the cutting. This will minimise the cut healing over which makes rooting more difficult.

Picture of stage 1 in Red Robin cutting
Image copyright notice
A stem suitable for cutting 

  • Select a stem which is about 1cm thick and cut it off just below a leaf node to leave a 8cm / 3in cutting.  The cutting should be semi-ripe which means not new soft growth and neither hard old growth. Somewhere in between is best.

Picture of stage 2 in Red Robin cutting
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The cutting unprepared

  • Remove the lower leaves of the cutting

Picture of stage 3 in Red Robin cutting
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Lower leaves removed

  • Fill an 8cm wide pot with multi-purpose and insert three evenly spaced cuttings in it about 4cm / 1.5in deep.

Picture of stage 4 in Red Robin cutting
Image copyright notice
Cuttings in a pot of compost

  • Gently firm the compost down around the cuttings to ensure it is in good contact with the stem. You may want to take six cuttings and use two pots, to ensure the best chance of success.
     
  • Place the pot in a shallow tray / bowl of water for half an hour so that it absorbs a good amount of water but the top part is not water-logged.
     
  • Remove the pot from the water and cover it with cling film or a small plastic bag and support it so that it does not touch the leaves. Plant markers are good for this purpose.
     
  • Place the pot in a shaded and cool (but not cold) position.

The cuttings should begin to root in two to three weeks and at this point remove the plastic bag. The cuttings should then grow and the best time to plant them out in their final position is next April / May when the danger of frost has passed.

During that time keep the rooted cuttings in a cold greenhouse or outside in a shaded position out of the way of harsh weather. They may well need watering, keep the compost slightly moist but not waterlogged.

WHERE TO BUY PHOTINIA RED ROBINS


If you want to buy online and have your plants delivered to your door, our recommendation for Photinia Red Robin would be Crocus. They stock not only regular sized plants but also larger ones in 12 litre pots for instant effect. They also stock the more modern dwarf form called 'Little Red Robin'. Click here to view these plants on their website.

If you wish to buy in bulk for hedging we would suggest Hedges Direct who we also know from personal experience supply plants in excellent condition and at very competitive prices.

Other similar shrubs in this series include Ceanothus, Choisya, Hebe, Skimmia, Magnolia, Mahonia, Mock Orange, Lilacs, Potentilla and Rose of Sharon (hibiscus syriacus). For the full list, click the Shrub Index link below.

PHOTINIA RED ROBIN SUMMARY


Below we list the key strengths and weaknesses of Photinia Red Robin.
 
HARDY 4 star hardiness rating(to -12°C)
   
CLAY SOIL Yes, if improved (see above)
SANDY SOIL Yes 
   
DRY SOIL No
   
SHADE No, partial, full sun
   
EVERGREEN Yes
   
EASY CARE 4.5 easy care rating
SMALL GARDENS No
   
POT / CONTAINER Yes
   
FLOWERING 1 star flowering ratingbut flower-like foliage
   
FLOWER TIME Not relevant

COMMENTS / QUESTIONS LEFT BY OUR READERS

Date: 15 October 2017 From: Bernard
QUESTION: Our red robin 4 years old has thrived in full sun and is pruned in annually in June. After pruning this year it flourished and produced lots of new red leaf growth an looked really healthy. Over a matter of days the vivid redness has disappeared. Is this normal?

ANSWER: The red foliage normally lasts a few weeks. To encourage it I would prune it in spring, April to May time and then prune again a couple of times to encourage more of the red foliage.


Date: 12 April 2017 From: Colin
QUESTION: Do red robin plants cause damage to public highway paths if planted near to fence adjoining public path?

ANSWER: Every situation is different but as a general rule Red Robin shrubs are considered non-invasive and are unlikely to damage nearby paths.


Date: 12 April 2017 From: Stephen H
QUESTION: I'm not sure who best to contact but I have a problem with what I think is a Photinia.

It has been in my garden for at least 20 years and has developed into more of a tree than a bush. Problem is that it's starting to look as though it's very unhappy, droopy leaves and looking dry.

I have cut one side back which looked very dead but I'd like to save the rest if I can as everyone comments on how lovely it is

We did wonder if it's due to the decking we put around it but it should still get plenty of moisture from deep underground, we do water it as well. Our soil is very sandy.

Hope you can give me some tips or maybe recommend somewhere else I can approach.

ANSWER: With decking around the tree it's going to be very difficult to get the conditions at the roots correct. Under normal conditions an established photinia requires watering only in drought conditions. However you have sandy soil and the decking will cause the water to run away from the roots.

My guess is that it is indeed lacking water. The sheer size of the shrub and the amount of foliage will result in significant evaporation.

On the other hand, to play devil's advocate to myself, overwatering would drown the roots and cause the leaves to wilt as well. It all depends on how much you have watered the tree.

I would suggest that the only way you will find out is to remove a panel or two of the decking, three or four feet away from the main trunk and see how moist or dry the soil is. Apologies for not being more specific.


Date: 6 May 2016 From: Mary
QUESTION: We planted a standard red robin about 8 years ago and it has a stem of about 3ft before it bushes out, it grows very well. Last year we planted another two (one each side of the original) but the stems are only about 2ft high at present. Will the stems naturally grow in height to match the original one or do we need to do anything i.e. pruning?

ANSWER: The stem itself won't grow any taller. Only the bush on top of the stem will grow in height if you don't prune it. There's nothing practical you can do now.


Date: 6 May 2016 From: Mary
QUESTION: We planted 3 red robins in March in partial sun and free draining soil. They are 6 ft high. They were well watered in on planting and we have had a lot of rain (North Yorkshire) but the leaves are beginning to droop. Is this due to current dry spell and should we just water freely at this stage? Thanks.

ANSWER: It's almost impossible to diagnose this type of problem with a newly planted shrub without actually seeing it. In general though, newly planted shrubs may well require watering in dry conditions for the first year or so. I would be surprised though if this was the cause of your problem at this time of year in North Yorkshire.

Too much water can drown the roots and this would have the same effect on the leaves. In reality, anything which prevents the roots absorbing moisture will eventually cause the plant to droop. Large shrubs especially are well known for being difficult to establish when they are moved. Are you sure that the surrounding soil has been firmed down well and is in good contact with the rootball.

You mention that they were planted in March and are 6ft high which indicates they would have been a costly addition to your garden. If there is a guarantee with the plants I would take some pictures and ask the seller for their comments.


Date: 27 April 2016 From: Tom
QUESTION: We have two Red Robins that initially thrived but now all the leaves have gone brown entirely - look almost burnt. They are positioned in partial sun and have had plenty of water. What would you recommend as the plant is still alive - cutting back or replanting?

ANSWER: Red Robins with significant areas of brown leaves are a sign of too much moisture or too little. In most cases it is because of too much water. Heavy clay is not their ideal soil and should be improved with lots of well rotted organic matter and horticultural grit at planting time. Even after they are planted the addition of organic matter under the canopy of the shrub will help especially if gently mixed in with the surface soil. Worms will take it down further and encourage better drainage.

Be careful of watering by hand. Even in dry weather a Red Robin should be able to find enough water from its roots. Unless the ground is exceptionally dry I would avoid watering altogether after the plant has been in the ground for a year.

 It is worth while cutting back your Red Robin if you also improve the soil conditions at the same time.


Date: 23 April 2016 From: Jenny D
QUESTION: We are trying to grown a photinia hedge behind our low front wall and really want the height to increase this year but I wonder should I trim the bottom shoots off to encourage growth at the top? I'm worried doing that will leave the bottom looking bare forever

ANSWER: Red Robin does tend to become a bit bare at the base, especially if the top is not trimmed occasionally. So, I wouldn't advise trimming off the bottom, it may well go bare and the only way to re-encourage the base to grow would be to trim the top off. That would be self-defeating as far as your objective is concerned. It's simply a matter of waiting  for the shrub to grow naturally.


Date: 22 April 2016 From: Barry
QUESTION: We are looking to get this as a hedge - can it be bought as such? A landscaper is recommending we buy 6 red robin plants, but (stand alone) these look wispy and bare! We were hoping to have a lovely lush hedge from the ground up.

ANSWER: Photinia Red Robin make an ideal hedge. When young the plants will look wispy and insubstantial, as would any shrub, but give them three years and they will look fine. Because you are planning to buy six or so I would first look around your neighbourhood to see if other gardeners are growing Red Robin. If is grows well in your area you will almost certainly find it in other gardens nearby because it is very popular. If you can't find any growing locally, I would be a bit wary that it may not suit your local conditions.


Date: 25 March 2016 From: janice
QUESTION: I have a red robin which I planted last year the the tips of new red leaves are black and curling inwards they almost look burned. Other than that the plant looks very healthy. Any ideas? Ta very muchness.

ANSWER: The explanation of what you describe is that young foliage has grown because of relatively warm weather and then a much cooler period with some frost has damaged the leaf tips. This does happen with a large number of shrubs in some years and I don't believe it indicates any disease problem. With such a strong growing shrub I feel sure it will grow out of it in a month or so.


Date: 2 September 2015 From: Lee
QUESTION: I'd like to plant this as a hedge, I can find information on spacing but not on how far from the fence I should plant. Could you please tell me if I wanted to keep this as a 5ft hedge how wide would it need to be to let the plant mature properly? Thank you

ANSWER: When grown against a wall or fence then the plants should be at least 60cm / 2ft from the wall or fence. If they are planted any nearer they may suffer from lack of moisture at the roots because the base of walls and fences will not receive as much rainfall as in an open position.


Date: 30 July 2015 From: Jimmy
QUESTION: I have a three or four year old Red Robin which flowered this year for the first time. How do I encourage it to flower again next year?

ANSWER: Pruning removes the flower buds and stops the flowers appearing. For the best flowering results don't prune your plant. If you do, prune it immediately after the flowers have died down.


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