Plant Profile: Red Tip Photinia (Photinia x fraseri)

Pruned hedge christmas berry (Photinia x fraseri) 'Red Robin'
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Red tip photinia (Photinia x fraseri) is an ornamental evergreen shrub frequently grown in USDA hardiness zones 7 to 11 in the eastern U.S. It receives its name from the fact that young leaves are red, gradually changing to a dark green as they mature. With white flowers produced in spring, provided the shrub has not been pruned earlier in the season, red tip photinia is an excellent low-maintenance shrub for hedges or privacy screens. It can also be shaped it a small specimen tree.

Description

Most types of red tip photinia used for hedges or privacy screens grow 6 to 10 feet tall, but cultivars selected as small trees may grow up to 20 feet tall. The leaves are the starring feature of this plant. Each new leaf that unfurls is a bright shade of red or bronze, but they gradually become a solid dark green as they mature. By continually trimming the ends of the shoots, the plant is stimulated to keep producing new leaves throughout the year.

If the flower buds have not been removed by early spring pruning, the flowers will open later that season. The clusters of white flowers can be unpleasantly smelly for some people. The flowers give way to small red pome fruit.

Botanical Information

Red tip photinia is a hyrid plant, a cross between Photinia serrulata (Chinese photina) and Photinia glabra (Japanese photinia). P. serrulata is a large sprawling plant, while P. glabra is a much smaller species that features the red-to-green leaf transformation. The hybrid name, P. x fraseri, was assigned because the hybrid was first identified by Fraser's Nursery, of Birmingham, Alabama; the shrub is sometimes called Fraser's photinia.

Red tip photinia, along with the other photinias, is a part of the Rosaceae family, which includes the fruit trees in the Prunus genus, such as Amelanchier (serviceberries), Malus (apples), Pyrus (pears), Rubus (blackberries, raspberries, etc.), and more.

This plant grows best in zones 7 to 9, but is sometimes planted in zones 10 and 11, as well.

Landscape Uses

Red tip photinia is a common choice for hedges, especially where it is possible to provide the constant pruning need to maintain the shape and cause the ongoing formation of new red leaves. It can be a good choice for hedges and privacy screens in areas where deer are a problem, as these animals tend to leave the shrub alone. Larger cultivars can be grown as small specimen trees, achieving heights of about 20 feet.

The shrub generally does well in sunny conditions and has good tolerance for drought. It will tolerate some shade, but dense shade makes it susceptible to fungal diseases. In very hot climates, it does best when it gets partial shade for part of the day, and is best planted in north- or east-facing locations. In cooler climates, it prefers in full sun.

Growing Red Tip Photinia

The best location for this shrub is one that has full sun or partial shade. Plant it in well-drained soil in locations that get good air movement. Heavy clay soils should be amended with 50 percent compost before planting. Avoid wet soils, as this can lead to root rot. Hedge plants should be spaced with at least 6 feet between them, as these plants grow quickly to a spread of 8 to 10 feet.

Continual pruning of the shoot tips will prompt continued production of the attractive reddish leaves. This does preempt flower production, but this is a shrub normally grown for its foliage, and the flowers have an odor that is not pleasant. Periodic heavy pruning of some branches down to the base will improve air circulation and prevent fungal diseases. If you live in an area with frosts, do not prune during the fall, since new growth may be damaged by freezing temperatures. If growing this plant as a tree, choose a central leader and prune away competing shoots to gradually shape the plant into a tree shape.

Water the plant once a week at the base during dry periods, and avoid getting the leaves wet. This shrub normally does not require fertilizing, unless the soil is very poor. When feeding is required, use slow-release organic fertilizers.

Since this is a hybrid plant, propagation is through woody cuttings. Shoot cuttings embedded in potting soil and kept moist will quickly develop roots.

Recommended Cultivars

A number of red tip photinia cultivars are highly recommended.

  • P. x fraseri 'Red Robin': Grows 9 to 12 feet, with similar spread. 'Red Robin' is a slightly more compact cultivar that is more easily tamed for use in hedges. It also has been resistance to leaf spot diseases. This is the most commonly planted cultivar.
  • Photinia × fraseri 'Pink Marble' : a newer cultivar with rose-pink new leaves with white variegates margins.
  • Photinia × fraseri 'Little Red Robin': a plant similar to 'Red Robin', but much smaller, with a height and spead of 2 to 3 feet.

Problems

Red tip photinia is a relatively hardy and carefree shrub, but it is susceptible to fungal diseases when conditions are wet or in humid climates. Entomosporium fungus is a particularly big threat. This disease appears as red spots across the leaf surface. If it is not controlled, over time it can overtake the plant and cause many of the leaves to drop, sometimes enough to kill the plant. You can help the plant recover by keeping the leaves dry and removing diseased foliage.

Powdery mildew and fireblight are also potential problems, as is common for many of the Rosaceae species. Root rot is possible if the soil is wet. You may also see leaf scorch, crown gall, and gray mold (Botrytis).

Insects that you may find on this shrub include caterpillars, European fruit-tip moth, mites, and scales.