Tag Archives: Luculia gratissima Early Dawn

Blooms to sweeten a winter’s day – luculia

Luculia gratissima ‘Early Dawn’

Here we are, a mere three days from the winter solstice and outside my window, rain is pelting down while thunder and lightning is keeping the dogs safely in their beds by the fire. So I bring you winter sunshine, in the form of luculia, with photographs I took just yesterday when the sun shone and the daytime temperature was around 18 degrees Celsius.

I am very fond of luculia with their heady fragrance and their balls of flowers. Perhaps they are a bit like the wintersweet equivalent for mild climates. These are not particularly hardy plants even though their original homeland is declared as the Himalayas and Southern China. Think not of high, snowy peaks but more of temperate, protected, lowland forests and by the time you reach southern China, it is distinctly tropical. Luculia are okay with cooler temperatures and a degree or two of frost but that is all. The will not survive much beyond that.

There is not a huge range of luculia – there are only five different known species and, as far as I know, named cultivars are species selections, not hybrids. We grow gratissima and pinceana, grandiflora is also widely grown but I have not seen intermedia or yunnanensis except on line.

I am not a massive fan of L. gratissima ‘Early Dawn’, which is a smaller growing species. That sugar pink flower is very… sugary. Also, when grown in full sun or high light levels, the foliage can take on autumn tones which are not a great foil to sugar pink. Too often, ‘Early Dawn’ is clipped into obedient, rounded stature. Let it grow as it wishes in woodland conditions and the foliage stays bright green giving clean contrast to the pink, while the shrub becomes willowy and graceful. That is when it looks best, to my eye, although it won’t flower as prolifically in shadier conditions.

Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud’

‘Fragrant Cloud’ is a different species, being L. pinceana. It is larger growing with considerably larger flowers in pretty almond pink, a stronger fragrance, more rangy and open in its growth and if you prune it too hard, it is highly likely to die on you. If you like tidy, contained shrubs, this may not be one for you. ‘Fragrant Pearl’ is one we named, another L. pinceana selection that came to us as a seedling from our colleague, Glyn Church. It is much more forgiving than its pink sibling and will take harder pruning. Left to its own devices, it will be just as rangy.

Luculia pinceana ‘Fragrant Pearl’

We used to grow ‘Fragrant Pearl’ commercially and it was one of the quickest turnarounds we had. Most of the trees and shrubs we grew took 3 or even 4 years from taking the cutting before becoming saleable. We could get ‘Fragrant Pearl’ through in 15 months. We would take the cuttings from nursery plants as soon as the new growth had hardened in January. They rooted really quickly and with a high percentage in the propagation beds. We would pot them from root-trainers to finished bag size in late winter or early spring, stake and shape them in January and sell them in bud in March and April. ‘Fragrant Cloud’, the pink form of the same species, was nowhere near as easy to handle as a nursery plant and the reason we don’t have L. grandiflora is because it was not that easy to propagate from the cuttings Mark tried and we don’t want it enough to go out and actually buy a plant.

I can not advise on how to make the flowers last longer when cut. Sometimes they have held reasonably well, other times they have gone limp and flaccid within hours. This probably has more to do with the time of the day they were cut than whether the stems were crushed or sealed by burning. But we heat our house to such a degree in winter that there is no point in trying to keep cut flowers in a vase.

Left to right: gratisima ‘Early Dawn’, pinceana ‘Fragrant Pearl’, pinceana ‘Fragrant Cloud

Plant Collector : Luculia gratissima “Early Dawn”

Luculia gratissima 'Early Dawn'

Luculia gratissima ‘Early Dawn’

To be honest, this is not my favourite luculia but it is the one that you are most likely to find offered for sale and it stays somewhat smaller than the other types we grow.

Do not let the fact that this winter flowering shrub hails from the Himalayas lull you into thinking it is hardy. It does not like frost at all and much more than a few degrees will cause short term damage to the foliage and possibly take out the winter blooms for the year. A heavy frost may kill it. However, you can learn a lesson from the fact that it is a forest tree in the Himalayas. If you have areas of the garden with good overhead cover from larger, evergreen trees, you may succeed with this plant, even in frosty inland areas. And it looks a great deal more attractive, in my opinion, when grown as a woodland plant.

The common practice in this country is to plant Early Dawn in full sun in the open and to keep it hard pruned and therefore more compact. It then covers itself in its rather harsh candy pink flowers (which are at least sweetly scented), shouting “Look at me! Look at me!” Its foliage develops a red tinge in cold temperatures and if an untimely frost catches it, you then have this rather unsightly, little shrub with shrivelled leaves. The plant we have in our woodland, however, is tall (2.5m), willowy, graceful and the sugar pink flower heads contrast well with all the greenery. It is a very different picture to the one we have in the open. Get it into woodland, is my advice, into ground rich in litter and humus. Then it may cheer up a bleak winter’s day.

First published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission.

For my preferred luculias, check out the white Fragrant Pearl and the pretty almond pink Fragrant Cloud (scroll down to the photo).