I’ve never really been a Photinia fan. Having seen so many red tip Photinias planted across the South that end up dying has given me an aversion. Red tips are susceptible to Entomosporium, a fungal disease that has taken red tip from the top of the nursery pack to near the bottom of the commodity world. The red tip Photinia (P. x fraseri) is a hybrid, a cross of P. glabra X P. serrulata, the Japanese Photinia mated with a Chinese Photinia.
In my opinion, the death by disease catastrophe with red tips is normally found with hedge rows and folks who like to prune. On the other hand, there are plenty of big old red tip specimens across East Texas that have zero problems with the disease. They’re usually solitary soldiers and often enjoy a space of their own in the sun – and they’re rarely touched. Now, it’s also true there are newer red tip clones that are reported to be disease resistant. We have a clone called ‘Pink Marble’ and while it’s attractive, I have no idea yet if it’s disease resistant or how it’ll hold up in the landscape. ‘Red Robin’ and ‘Indian Princess’ are new in the garden and touted as more disease resistant. Time will tell if that’s true.
However, the plant we’re sure about is P. serrulata, the Chinese Photinia. This species can get big. It’s actually a tree – and has large dark green leathery leaves. Most important, we’ve never seen any symptoms of Entomosporium on Chinese Photinia in our region. While reported to be susceptible to three forms of Cercospora leaf spot, that malady hasn’t revealed itself in our region when the species is planted in a sunny spot.
At SFA Gardens, we have an interesting P. serrulata clone that came to our garden many years ago via Sherwood Akin, Sibley, Louisiana. It was one of his seedlings, selected because it had a superior shape and form than other seedlings. In the Mast Arboretum our best specimen gets good sun and moisture – it’s actually adjacent to wet spot in the garden. This football-shaped 12’ shrub has endured hurricanes, floods, and the drought and heat of 2010 and 2011. It’s never been pruned – except for a few cuttings every now and then. White flowers are arranged as bright, 6-8” diameter clusters. New growth is slightly pinkish bronze. The springtime flower clusters are followed by fruit clusters of red berry-like fruit which persist a bit into the winter.
Here are some important points. First, Chinese Photinia hasn’t proven to be invasive in our garden or in the area. While I’ve encountered a chance seedling here and there in east Texas, they’re far and few between, certainly nothing like some of the other bullies in our woods. This tree just doesn’t do well in shade which is perhaps a major reason it can’t get a foothold. Second, Chinese Photinia roots at good percentages and grows off fast in container culture. Cuttings can be taken almost any time. May-June cuttings make good saleable plants in 18 months. Third, after 2010 and 2011 – record heat and drought in our region – I came away impressed how our older Chinese Photinias in East Texas just didn’t seem to care. I’ve been admiring one big fellow on top of Swift Hill, which is 9 miles east of Nacogdoches on Hwy 7 – and only a half mile up the highway from my home. It sits in a full sun spot in a dry low quality soil – and never blinked during the devastating heat and drought of 2010 and 2011. Any plant that can hang tough when the temperature reaches 112 degrees has my vote. I’m convinced this is one tough plant.
As for pruning, I don’t think it’s needed, just let the bush develop its own character. As a street tree it could be pruned into an attractive multi-stem small tree with a rounded head. Employing the rule of thirds is a good start. I’ve seen it used that way in China as a street and avenue tree and thought it looked great.