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The Garden Guru: You’ll smell this shrub before you spot it

In the past couple of weeks, have you found yourself crossing a parking lot or walking into an office and wondering, “What is that fabulous fragrance, and where is it coming from?”

If you have, gardener, go back and take a look around. This time of year there’s a very good chance that you were in the vicinity of a plant that’s also one of our most dependable landscaping shrubs. Most of us simply call it by its generic name, elaeagnus, but botanically it’s elaeagnus pungens ‘Fruitlandii.’ If you look in gardening references, you’ll find it listed by a common name of fruitland silverberry, but if you ever hear somebody calling it by that name, it’s probably because they just looked it up.

If only all of our landscaping shrubs could be this dependable. Elaeagnus grows in a wide assortment of soils. It’s heatproof and evergreen. Well, kind of green. Actually, it has that gray-green foliage so many people like in their landscapes. Not quite as gray as Texas sage (but a lot more durable) and not nearly as deep green as hollies or junipers.

Grow elaeagnus where you need a large, assertive shrub. Don’t plan on shearing it into some regular (i.e., square) form, because it will rebel with long shoots you’ll have to remove one by one. Indeed, plant it where it can grow to be 5 or 6 feet tall and 6 to 8 feet wide. As one example of an effective use, were you to plant 5-gallon-size plants 6 to 7 feet apart now and care for them properly for the next two or three years, they would grow together to form a great screen for privacy and even, to some degree, for security. The plants do have a few thorns in their interiors, but I’ve grown them for years and I’ve never paid much attention to them.

Give elaeagnus full or nearly full sun. The better you can water and feed it, the more quickly it will grow and fill in. You may need to do a little reshaping of it each spring, after its burst of new growth, but nothing on a regular basis. As mentioned, it does throw out “fishing poles” of new shoots that can extend a couple of feet beyond the main canopy of the plant’s foliage, but those are easily removed with lopping shears. It’s similar to the pruning we have to do to Lady Banks roses and standard glossy abelia. Not a really big deal.

It’s normal for elaeagnus leaves to have cinnamon-colored specks on their silvery backsides. Those confuse some gardeners who think that they’re spider mites. They’re actually a normal part of the leaf tissue. If, however, you begin to see tan mottling on the top surfaces of the leaves, lace bugs may be visiting your plant. They’re about the only insect that causes any concern, and a systemic insecticide should make quick work of them if you apply it immediately.

As for the flowers (since they’re the reason we called this meeting), very few plants have blooms that are any less obvious. And that’s OK, because these flowers aren’t much to look at. Funny, isn’t it, that some of the ugliest flowers in Texas so fill the air with delicious fragrance — and at a season when you’re really not set up to expect it?

Those little flowers do produce fruit. It ripens in the spring, and it’s a food source for birds. Each little fruit is about 3/4 inch long, and each is almost completely filled with one single large seed. Between that seed and the leathery skin on the outside of the fruit, there is a blood-red pulp that’s puckery until it ripens, then sweet and consumable. (I am the only human to think so. I’ve learned how to squeeze out the pulp in my teeth, separate it from the skin and spit out the seed. But it’s a survival skill that doesn’t exactly make one look scholarly.) The fruit is subject to freeze damage as far north as we are, so while your plants will bloom reliably every late fall, they may or may not end up with fruit the following spring.

There are several other species and varieties of elaeagnus, all much less common than this standard one. The rank-growing windbreak tree called Russian olive is actually an elaeagnus ( E. angustifolia). It, too, has gray leaves, but it’s too large and erratic for most urban landscapes.

You’ll find several variegated selections of the standard elaeagnus. They’re all dependable, although they do often revert to green branches scattered through the plants. Unless those green shoots are removed, they will quickly overtake the slower-growing yellow-and-green leaves.

A hybrid selection called Ebbinge’s elaeagnus ( elaeagnus x ebbingei) produces lovely gray-green foliage, but on plants that tend to be slightly more upright. It has the same fragrant fall flowers and the same rugged dependability. If you need a slightly taller screening shrub, this could be the one.