A Gardening Journal

Walker's weeping peashrub

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The shrub that wears Winter well:  Weeping caragana, where snow and ice coat the octopus-like branches, making cold look cool.  The branches don't arch outward far before they head straight down.  This leaves the oldest growth—thick branches that form the base of the weeping shrub where it had been grafted atop the straight trunk—unusually exposed.

 

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The newest growth is at the tips of the branches—but because the branches are so pendulous, that means that the branch tips are, mostly, at the bottom of the shrub.  This is the reverse of a typical upright shrub or tree, where the thickest and oldest growth is at the bottom, and the tiny new growth of the twigs is way up at the top.

 

For all of its resolute pendulous verticality, the new growth is, oddly, a bit shy about growing very far downward. 

 

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In the eight years I've had my own weeping caragana, only this one branch has extended a tip to within inches of the ground.

 

The majority of the branches descend quickly—but slow down when they've completed about half their descent.

 

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The gradually-thickening trunk of a weeping caragana, then, is always as exposed as the thick branches at its top.

 

 

 

Here's how to grow this quirky and oh-so-hardy shrub:


Latin Name

Caragana arborescens 'Walker'

Common Name

Walker's weeping peashrub

Family

Fabaceae, the Pea family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 2 - 7.

Habit

Stiffly-weeping branches arch only briefly before plunging toward the ground.  Although their downward growth is straight and "plumb-true," the branches make little progress in their chosen journey.  In my eight-year experience with a happy 'Walker', no branch has yet come close to touching ground.  There's some sort of reverse altimeter at work: The closer the tip of a branch gets to the ground, the slower its growth becomes.

Rate of Growth

Medium. 

Size in ten years

The size changes almost imperceptibly with time.  My 'Walker' was grafted atop a four-foot trunk feet at planting, and after eight years it's only inches higher, and only inches wider, too.  It is fuller: The canopy is denser, because more branches have been produced.  But their downward trajectory is adopted soon, and they don't arch outward much past current growth. 

Texture

The foliage is feathery in the extreme, in great contrast to the strongly visible bases of the limbs, which remain exposed at the top of the trunk, where they were grafted, and are as thick and sparse as a workman's gnarled fingers.

Grown for

its foliage.  There's minimal leaf area beyond what is right along the leaf veins, so the foliage is extremely feathery. 

 

its habit.  'Walker' weeps so strongly that plants that were not grafted atop a trunk to provide some height would be completely prostrate.  The height and width change little, even after many years of growth.

 

its hardiness.  Zone 2:  Even Minnesota isn't cold enough to challenge this shrub's hardiness; to garden in Zone 2, you'd need to drive from Minnesota northward into Manitoba for a day.  Take a lot of Caragana with you.

Flowering season

Late Spring, emerging with the foliage.  The yellow flowers are narrow and tubular, and aren't showy amid the foliage.

Color combinations

The yellow flowers are ephemeral and subtle, so 'Walker' can be sited more on the basis of its green foliage, which goes with everything. 

Partner Plants

Planted in-ground, 'Walker' could be a welcome high point to a bed of heathers and dwarf conifers.  In Winter, its bare branches would also provide some relief from all of that evergreenity.

 

That said, the tree's feathery foliage is shown to best advantage when larger leaves are nearby.  The foliage is only present in the warm months, and since 'Walker' loves sun—although not the day-and-night swelter of Zone 7 and warmer—consider pairing with sun-loving tropicals such as cannas, elephant ears, gingers, or bananas. 

 

If your 'Walker' is old enough that its canopy is (finally) broadening out to provide a bit of shade at the ground, you could underplant with low hostas.  Or, if the shrub is located where you have easy view of it in the Winter, you could choose hellebores.  They appreciate the good drainage that the 'Walker' needs, as well as the feathery shade it would provide in the Summer.  

 

The shrub's weeping habit is strong and, candidly, stiff.  Turn that rigidity into a statement by providing a simple and contrastingly-colored background that will put its branches into stark relief.  Dark evergreens are best because the bark of 'Walker' is light tan.  Or if 'Walker' is near a building, let it be white, which also contrasts with the tan bark, but from the other end of the spectrum. 

Where to use it in your garden

'Walker' peashrub may be an ornamental flourish of only small scale, but its geometry is so strong that it can look wildly out of place if it isn't sited within the right context.  Plants with such a striking habit—be it columnar, irregular, or, in this case, weeping—should not be added to otherwise generic surroundings to provide interest.  Instead, create a layout that is already interesting, in which a plant with such striking geometry will feel like the inevitable climax, the final detail that you bring to a composition that was already inspired.  'Walker', then, is the icing on the cake; you can't ice the cake until you've baked the cake itself.

 

My 'Walker' anchors one of several planting pockets around the perimeter of a large dining terrace.  It flanks a high stone-topped table that we use as the sideboard for buffet serving.  It's backed by a tall yew hedge that, in the Summer months, is fronted with a solid expanse of the unusually large foliage of three Chinese tulip trees that I prune informally so they remain shrub-sized.  The tulip trees play the Supremes to the weeping peashrub's Diana Ross.  The terrace, the yew hedge and tulip trees, the stone sideboard: It's a lot of set-up so that the 'Walker' doesn't look like I had been thinking, "Hmm, this terrace is still a bit boring.  I know:  I'll perk it up by planting a weird weeping shrub." 

 

'Walker' would also be stylish and interesting (rather than a too-easy stunt) planted in a high, narrow, and Winter-durable container, which would emphasize the shrub's high and narrow profile.  The shrub is so unusually hardy that it could handle the added challenge of living life in the container, where its roots would freeze and thaw regularly over the Winter.  But, as with my terrace, don't just plonk that container down in an otherwise unremarkable spot by your front door.  Add some shorter containers, one or two with low-and-mounding plants, and another that you replant seasonally.  Again, think of how to you're going to include The Supremes whenever you think of bringing in Diana Ross.

Culture

Full sun and almost any soil that's neither waterlogged nor desperately dry.  

How to handle it:  The Basics

'Walker' needs little attention in any season, at any point over its lifespan.  The shrub is so hardy you can plant in Fall or in Spring.  I've found that it's never as securely rooted-in as I'd like.  And because the trunk is absolutely straight, the slightest lean is noticeable; I've put in a permanent but short metal stake so the trunk can always be vertical.

 

The rootstock suckers a bit, with round leaves that are the norm for most other caragana species and cultivars.  Clip those off whenever you have the urge.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

None.

Quirks or special cases

None.

Downsides

'Walker' needs a lot of "contexting" if it isn't to look like a quick stunt.   

Variants

There are scores of Caragana species, all native to Europe and Asia.  With the exception of a couple of feathery-leaved cultivars ('Walker' and 'Lorgergii'), and dwarf or pendulous cultivars ('Nana' and C. pygmaea, and 'Pendula'), most are upright and broad shrubs that are terrific more for strictly functional uses (e.g., as suckering large-scale groundcovers, as wildlife habitat and food, as nitrogen-fixing soil amenders, as part of a shelter-belt in unusually cold climates) than as garden ornamentals. 

 

C. arborescens itself has young twigs that stay green for several years, and, like all ungrafted Caragana species and cultivars, it can be renewed readily by cutting the stems down to inches in Spring.  Resultant growth can be several feet long by September.  Why not grow it as a shrub that's coppiced for Winter interest, when green twigs would be welcome, indeed?  If the coppicing is done right after the Spring flowering, that seasonal show is retained, too.  I must try this.  C. arborescens can grow tall enough to be, as the name suggests, arboreal in scale.  Another strategy, then, would be to create a display of green twigs that are held higher above-ground by training the shrub as a small pollarded tree.  A standard of Caragana arborescens: I must try this, too.

Availability

On-line and at retailers.

Propagation

By grafting.

Native habitat

Caragana arborescens is native to eastern Siberia and Manchuria.  'Walker' is a Canadian hybrid of C. arborescens 'Lorbergii', from which it gets its ferny foliage, and C. arborescens 'Pendula', which supplied the stiffly-weeping habit.

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