Eric’s Pet Plant: Variegated Dog-hobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’)

Rainbow leucothoe fontanesiana

Eric’s young ‘Rainbow’ leucothoe, currently about 18 inches high with a spread of two-and-a-half feet, but already showing the graceful lines and drooping branches that add architectural interest to the shade garden.

Our friend Eric has what sometimes seems like an undue fondness for woody evergreens. But as he mildly points out from time to time, he likes to write about the plants he’s experimenting with as manager of Yale’s Marsh Gardens, and that means a lot of emphasis on plants of special value to Northeasterners. Even though New Haven is quite a bit warmer than our part of the Hudson Valley – or Maine – there’s still a lot of winter to contend with.

Variegated Dog-hobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’)

By Eric Larson

Leucothoe is named for a Greek mythological female, although exactly which one is not entirely clear (see the Bonus Goddess Roundup at the end of the post). The plant itself, however, is a North American broadleaf evergreen, native to the southeastern United States, with a range that may extend to stream-banks and shaded wet areas here in Connecticut.

It is a member of one of our favorite plant families, the Heath or Blueberry family (Ericaceae). There are about 45 species in the genus, native to Asia, the Americas and, somewhat surprisingly, Madagascar.

Dog-hobble (so called because it is indeed poisonous to dogs, cats and all warm blooded animals) is really a work horse in the shady landscape, useful primarily for its colorful evergreen leaves. It also provides spring flowers  – white to cream-colored, fragrant in an ‘interesting’ sort of way – and is ideal for filling the mid-level niche that can develop under mature shrubs.

You know how some of them tend to get that leggy look, like they just got off the runway at a fashion show, wearing a poofy top?  Well, cover up those unsightly bony bottoms with Leucothoe, which tops out at around five to six feet, but can easily be pruned to keep it at three.

The graceful, arching branches make the architecture of leucothoes very useful as well, especially in contrast with the stiffer more phlegmatic plants like Yew, Rhododendron, etc. It grows comparatively slowly but in time encompasses a three to five foot circle, further extended by those outreaching branches. ‘Rainbow,’ today’s star cultivar, is just one of many varieties that can show a range of foliage color from white to red to silver to pink,  as well as the common deep green.

Leucothoe works well as a mass planting to hold stream banks, in the shrub border to cover those leggy plant knees and as a source for cut flowers (actually the cut foliage, which is good as a ‘filler’ in the vase).

 leucothoe fontanesia Rainbow close up

Rainbow’s brightly variegated leaves show why it is worth growing in the shade garden. On this cloudy day, in the shade of the foundation of our greenhouse 1b, this plant lights up the landscape around it.

Growing Leucothoe: If you pay attention to the native habitat of a plant, you can more easily choose the best location for it in your own landscape. In the wild, Leucothoe grows along shady stream banks, so shade, adequate water and rich soil are part of the happiness quotient. As one could guess from the rest of the family, an acid soil is preferred. If these minimum criteria are met, you will find that Leucothoe is a carefree, pest-free garden denizen.

The First Peoples used Dog-hobble as a poultice or infusion rub for ‘shifting pains,’  rheumatism, itch, scratches and ‘languor.’ They also applied the root ooze to mangy dogs, though I am not sure if that was to cure the mange or to put the dog out of its misery.  As always, check with your dermatologist, physician, witch doctor or homeopath before using any of the cures mentioned in this article.  I don’t want to be responsible for sudden baying at the moon or other maladies that may strike because of my interest in past uses for these plants.

Leucothoe can be found at many stand alone nurseries around here, including VanWilgen’s and Broken Arrow, so there’s no reason to even think about a Big Box Store. In fact, I think local nurseries are the places to shop no matter where you are. Their bathroom facilities may not be that great, and they aren’t usually open at all hours of the day and night, but these minor inconveniences are more than made up for by the knowledgeable plant folks, the dollars kept close to home and the sense of place that distinguish local establishments, some of them in operation for generations.

Bonus Goddess Roundup

What myth are we going to believe?  Besides the fables that get broadcast on television and radio, there are myths that helped create who we are. If the Greeks gave us the foundations of democracy, they also gave us a mystifying array of tales, including many where the gods intervened in the lives of humans.  Usually this was in the form of seduction of a human female, to the point where I imagine young women were more afraid of gods than Visigoths.

Leucothoe was one  or all of the following:

* A gentle lass whose sister was jealous of the attention that the god Helios (Apollo) paid to her.  This mean-spirited sister dropped the dime, as it were, on Leucothoe, telling the father, King Orchamus, about the god’s visits to the maiden’s chamber, disguised as the mother to get past the guards. Angry beyond belief, the old king had Leucothoe buried alive. It didn’t go so well for the sister either.  Clytia was unsurprisingly not forgiven by Apollo, and as a consequence she withered and died, and was turned by the god into the Sunflower, which follows the sun (Helios) every day.

* One of the 50 Nereids who traveled with Poseidon in his perambulations around the oceans. They were often friendly and helpful to sailors, especially when bad weather and heavy seas made life miserable. Obviously they don’t seem to embrace Italian cruise ships with the same gusto, or perhaps they have long since retired.

This one, formerly known as Halia, bore Poseidon six sons and Rhode, a goddess whose lineage lists several possible mothers – just to complicate things a bit. The sons were driven mad by Aphrodite in retaliation for an impious affront, and after assaulting their sister were confined to the under world by Poseidon. Halia threw herself into the sea, and became Leucothea (an alternate spelling for our genus).

In the Odyssey, the goddess appears to the shipwrecked Odysseus as a gannet, a sea bird, telling him to abandon his cloak and raft, and to trust her gift of a veil to save his life and achieve landfall.

In a sanctuary in Laconia, she answers questions about dreams put to her by adherents.  This form of oracle is singular to her.

* Ino, daughter of Cadmus, Queen of Atharnas,  and in this version we  find the subject in question having cared for the newborn Dionysus and thus attracting the ire of Hera, who drove her mad. She grabbed her son Melicertes and dove into the sea, where both she and her son were immortalized by the Olympian gods as Palaemon and Leucothea.

Perhaps I don’t need to add after all this that the Greek gods seem to be a temperamental and fickle lot, repaying kindness with madness and death, then making the poor victims part of the game by giving them stature as gods. But ours is not to judge, only to report. Our Judeo-Christian story is replete with mismanaged human resources, to say the least.





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