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Ninebark vs. Ribes

ribes sanguineum & physocarpus capitatus

ribes sanguineum & physocarpus capitatus

I didn’t get the greatest photo, but I find this juxtaposition pretty funny. First off, it’s a mistake on several levels. It’s in a planting outside a sub-development, and I’m sure that a landscape architect designed the planting with all Ribes sanguineum (flowering currant), but the contractor accidentally installed one Physocarpus capitatus (Pacific ninebark). There’s only one ninebark in the whole planting, and the two plants look similar when young so it would be an easy enough mistake to make, and there’s no way someone would intentionally plant this–it looks like Two-Face from the Batman series. There’s also no way anyone should have hedged these plants, but for some reason people seem to think it’s appropriate.

The mistake does make for an interesting, if slightly unfair, comparison. When they are not hedged, ninebarks have beautiful new foliage in the spring; the new leaves have almost the same effect as flowers, and the flowers are nice when they come later in the year. The plants are fast and tough and a good native habitat plant. I like them; we have one in our own garden. But they are not for every garden. The form is kind of rangy and thickety if you don’t prune it frequently, the bloom should be deadheaded, and the leaves can get tired and yellow by mid-summer with no fall color before they drop.

And ninebarks just can’t compete head to head with a Ribes; few things can. Ribes sanguineum is beautiful and native and fast and tough and a great habitat plant, and it will thrive in virtually any spot where you’d put a ninebark. It’s good for habitat and genetic diversity reasons to plant the ninebark (most Ribes in retail nurseries are from just a few cultivars), but most people, and most clients, will prefer the Ribes. We do plant ninebarks- like I said, we’ve got one in our own garden (along with two Ribes)–but we’ve probably installed six or eight Ribes for every one ninebark. I’m sympathetic to the native plant enthusiasts who want as much diversity and habitat value as possible in gardens, but sometimes it comes down to just looking at two plants side by side and picking. Fortunately, we don’t always have to pick between the two, and we do sometimes find gardens for ninebarks. Ninebarks are nice, they just aren’t awesome.

I put a few photos of the hedged ribes mound that the landscape architect was intending. I don’t really understand the urge to turn two perfectly nice Ribes shrubs into a single Ribes shrub mound.

inexplicably hedged ribes sanguineum

inexplicably hedged ribes sanguineum

ribes sanguineum

ribes sanguineum

ribes sanguineum

ribes sanguineum

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2 Responses to “Ninebark vs. Ribes”

  1. March 15th, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    Town Mouse says:

    Nicely said! Yes, it’s interesting what can happen. I saw this cluster of Arctostaphylos Howard McMinn edged recently. Not a pretty sight..I may go back for a photo and file under DON’T DO THIS.

  2. March 16th, 2009 at 12:09 pm

    themanicgardener says:

    Thanks for this great post! I left you a message over at Blotanical, by the way.
    –Kate

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