Here's a beauty for you, though it's underused, sadly, in both home and commercial landscapes: Pieris japonica, also known as Japanese pieris, Japanese Andromeda or lily of the valley shrub.
A broad-leaved evergreen shrub, it's blooming up a storm as I type. Typically, it flowers more toward late March and is finishing up about now. With this spring on the cool side, it's gotten a bit of a late start, so we'll be able to enjoy it later than usual.
The flowers have to be one of the shrub's most prized possessions, whether they are red, pink or white. Fragrant, they resemble the bells of the lily of the valley, hence one of its common names. In fact, if you can imagine bunching a number of stems of the lily of the valley together like a little girl's ponytail, you'll have the flower of pieris. When in full bloom, these "ponytails" cover the shrub, giving the plant an elegant, weeping look.
Once the flowers fade, the show is far from over. If you are familiar with how the leaves of a rhododendron are arranged, like fingers, you've got a good visual of how the leaves of the pieris are arranged.
This palmate configuration of their small, slender evergreen leaves gives this shrub year-round appeal that offers a bronzy new growth at the branch tips once it finishes blooming. For even more foliar interest, the new growth of "Mountain Fire" is a rich red, and "Variegata" sports a green leaf and white margin that looks as if someone individually painted each leaf.
I've had an Andromeda for years; it resides next to our basement door, where it gets about three hours of direct sun a day and its roots are at home in a cool, moist soil. Being a broad-leaved evergreen, it cannot tolerate much direct sun; an eastern exposure, dappled shade from an overhead tree canopy or along the edge of the woods work best. As for soil, give it a location that supplies a moist, well-drained, organically rich acidic soil.
This shrub is a notoriously slow grower, maxing out taller than wide. Depending on the cultivar, it'll grow 7-10 feet tall and 4-7 feet wide. Mine has been planted for easily 15 years, and it's roughly 5 feet tall; it was around 3 feet when I planted it.Comment on this story
Some may see that as a drawback. I prefer to see it as one less shrub to tend to because rarely, if ever, do you need to prune. If you should for some reason, remember because it blooms in early spring to prune it immediately after it finishes flowering. If you prune any other time, you will be removing the next season's blooms.
A very social shrub, it mixes beautifully with shade-loving perennials, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, ferns or by itself, simply surrounded by vinca or pachysandra. It deserves far more attention than it has to date, so the next time you're visiting your favorite nursery, cruise on down the row of Pieris — it's a pretty good bet you'll leave with one.