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Tuesday - July 01, 2008

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Non-Natives
Title: Leaf loss on non-native Elaeocarpus decipiens
Answered by: Barbara Medford


Hello, I had my landscaper plant Japanese Blueberry bushes over the winter along my fence to act as a privacy screen. Their long, narrow and full evergreen characteristics are ideal for creating privacy from my neighbors. The landscaper doubled them up so that the screen would be very thick. But here's the concern.. Over the past few months, they have been shedding a lot of leaves, mainly on the inside areas where little light gets in. Now most of the branches against the fence where it gets little light are completely bare. There's plenty of leaves on the tops and front sides where the sun hits them, but everything underneath in the dark areas is bare. Is this just what the bushes are doing to survive by shedding the leaves they don't need, or is this the beginning of a slow death?


It would appear that you got a little too thorough in planting your privacy hedge. In the area where you have your plants, there is a limited amount of resources, which include air, water, light and soil. This is a plant which apparently (if it is not the dwarf version) can grow to 30 ft tall by 20 ft wide. The dwarf version has a target size of 20 ft x 10 ft. The leaves on the underside of your bushes are already dying because they are getting no sunlight. But they may also be dying because there are just too many roots in too little soil, competing for the moisture and nutrition available for them to provide to the leaves for photosynthesis. Are the trees beginning to die? That's hard to say, because we don't know how many trees you have in what space, and what other plants are also occupying the relative space. But we can assure you the plants are not getting ready to prosper, and it won't even be a survival of the fittest-they will all decline, and some will surely die because they simply can't compete.

We had to begin by finding out about Japanese blueberry, Elaeocarpus decipiens, which originated in the Old World tropics, mainly southern China. They are hardy from Zones 8-12. Austin hovers around 7b, depending on where you are, so they could probably be okay unless we had a really long, bad cold stretch. The plant is apparently a relatively new introduction to the nursery trade, and Monrovia Nursery, in California, seems to be one of the main providers. They have, in fact, a patented dwarf cultivar of the plant called MonProud, trademark "Little Emperor." They are usually grown in shrub or columnar form, prefer full sun and regular watering.

From this Texas A&M Horticulture site, Japanese Blueberry, we learned that it tends to become chlorotic on alkaline soils, and can sustain frost tip damage even in Zone 8. Of course, they are non-native, so we have no information on them in our Native Plant Database. At the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, we always urge researching your landscaping needs BEFORE you buy, finding out how big the plant is expected to be, and if it belongs in your USDA Hardiness Zone. Even more than that, we recommend that you stick to plants native to your area, because they will require less fertilizer, water and maintenance. We really can't give you a definitive solution to your problem. We would have hoped your landscapers would have been prepared to indicate that the number of plants was unsuitable for the area, if nothing else. And wherever the landscaper purchased the plants, there should have been some hardiness information and prospective mature size available. After all the expense of puchasing them and having them planted, you are probably not in favor of digging every other one up, or however many it takes to thin the hedge down to a manageable size. You will have to make the decision, but we predict that if you leave it the way it is, you are going to have a group of scraggling, dying trees on your property line instead of the privacy you were hoping for.


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