Skimmia: how to grow, care for & propagate Skimmia japonica

Nicolas
Nicolas
Nicolas
Nicolas

I have always been fascinated by plants. There is still so much to explore and discover in the plant kingdom and I would love to be a part of it. At the moment I am really enjoying my studies in horticulture, focussed particularly on veg and ornamental plants.
Working sustainably and using eco-friendly integrated plant protection are very important to me.

Favourite fruit: Raspberries
Favourite vegetable: Tomatoes

In summer and in winter, the skimmia’s red buds, red berries and white flowers are a beautiful sight in any garden.

Vibrant green foliage and red flower buds of skimmia plant
Skimmia japonica has striking red-coloured flower buds [Photo: beton studio/ Shutterstock.com]

There are only a few plants that still display their ornamental beauty in the winter months. And Skimmia japonica is most definitely one of them! Its stunning red flower buds, red berries and dark green foliage stay throughout the winter. Then, when spring arrives the skimmia’s fragrant white flowers emerge.

Skimmia: flowering, origin and other characteristics

Skimmia plants belong to the rue or citrus family (Rutaceae), which also includes citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons. The best-known genus is Skimmia japonica, also known as the Japanese skimmia, dwarf or flowering skimmia. Skimmias originated in eastern Asia and are typically found in Chinese, Korean and Japanese forests; more specifically, in shaded, cool and moist areas. The plants have dark green, laurel-like leaves and reach a height of around 1.5m. The Japanese skimmia is one of the few evergreen skimmias considered to be an ornamental shrub due to its highly decorative value all year round. In autumn, the skimmia plant produces bright red flower buds on panicles that remain right through the winter. Between April and May, the small, fragrant flowers bloom in both white and pink.

Most skimmia plants are dioecious, meaning that plants have either only male flowers or only female flowers. To tell the sex of a skimmia plant, look closely at the individual flowers. Female skimmias have a central pistil in the middle of the flower, whereas male flowers usually have four stamen that sit on a short stem, called the filament. Both the female skimmia and the male skimmia produce the typical flower buds, but only the female plant produces the small berries that slowly turn red in summer. For these bright red skimmia berries to grow, a male plant is needed nearby to provide the required pollen. So, if you want a harvest of skimmia berries, make sure to plant at least one male and one female.

White skimmia blossom with four petals and central pistil
Female skimmia flowers have a single pistil in the middle [Photo: Iva Villi/ Shutterstock.com]

Top tip: When buying Skimmia plants, the male skimmia is mostly sold as a flowering plant, whilst the female variety is sold as a fruiting plant.

The most beautiful species and varieties of skimmia

  • Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’: This skimmia variety is a flowering plant, meaning it is a purely male variety. The buds are dark red and the flowers are light pink.
  • Skimmia japonica ‘Temptation’: This is a fruiting female skimmia. When the white skimmia flowers are fertilised, they produce little, bright red berries from August to September.
  • Skimmia japonica ‘Veitchii’: This is also a fruiting female skimmia with red berries and white-pink petals.
  • Skimmia reevesiana:  This skimmia species produces both male and female flowers. One plant alone is therefore capable of producing fruit. Skimmia reevesiana develops light pink flowers and red berries.
Four-petaled male skimmia flowers with four yellow stamens
Male skimmia flowers, such as those of the variety ‘Rubella’ have four stamens with pollen [Photo: Iva Villi/ Shutterstock.com]

Planting skimmia: where, when and how?

Skimmia plants thrive best in sheltered and shaded places with little direct sunlight. You can plant skimmia as a single shrub or in a group. When growing a single plant, keep a plant spacing of 1.5m between it and other plants. When planted in a group, do not put more than three per square metre. You can plant skimmias all year round in frost-free weather, however, autumn is best to ensure healthy growth and root development in the moist soil. Skimmia shrubs love a humus and nutrient rich, slightly acidic soil (pH of between 4.8 and 5.2). Good companion plants that enjoy similar conditions include rhododendrons and heathers. If the soil is too alkaline, we recommend mixing in an acidic, ericaceous compost to create the right pH balance.

To plant your skimmia, dig a hole for each plant that is about twice as large as the root ball and fill it halfway with acidic compost. Then, water the soil generously and use a shovel to mix the planting soil and the existing soil thoroughly. This will allow the soil to absorb the water and retain moisture. Place the skimmia plant in the centre of the hole and fill with the remaining ericaceous compost. Press the soil down lightly and water again after planting. In the first few weeks after planting, water the soil regularly to keep it moist.

Potted skimmias before transplanting
Skimmias can be planted all year round [Photo: beton studio/ Shutterstock.com]

Summary: Planting skimmias

  • Grow in acidic soil – amend the pH if necessary
  • Dig a hole twice the size of the root ball and fill half with ericaceous compost
  • Mix both the existing soil and the compost with lots of water
  • Place the plant in the hole and fill in with the acidic compost
  • Press the soil down lightly and water again generously

Growing skimmias in pots:

  • Use a sufficiently large pot and fill with a slightly acidic, ericaceous compost
  • Water plants regularly in summer
  • In winter, protect the potted skimmia from frost
  • Skimmias are not suitable as houseplants: They need a cool and damp environment as well as a colder conditions in winter

Skimmia care: pruning, watering and fertilising

Skimmias are hardy plants that can tolerate colder temperatures. They are pretty undemanding when it comes to care too.

Watering and fertilising

Young skimmia plants need watering at least every fortnight until their roots are well established. Once established, the skimmia plant only needs to be watered during longer dry spells. One application of slow-release fertiliser a year in spring is sufficient for healthy growth. It is important to use acidic fertilisers for this as they help lower the pH of alkaline soils.

Skimmia shrub with red berries
The red berries are enjoyed by birds throughout the winter, so they remain hanging for a long time [Photo: Peter Turner Photography/ Shutterstock.com]

Pruning skimmias

Minimal pruning is needed as skimmias naturally grow as a tidy and compact shrub. You can remove faded flowerheads, but leave faded female flowers so that they can develop their red berries. Vigorous shoots that ruin the shape can also be shortened without harming the shrub.

What to do if leaves turn yellow?

Skimmias generally grow problem-free, but yellowing of the leaves is a sign that something is wrong.

  • Too much sun/drought: Skimmias can develop yellow spots on the leaves if they are exposed to too much sun or if the air is too dry. It is important to provide enough shade and moist soil, especially around the plant’s roots.
  • Unsuitable soil: Problems could also be caused by soil being too alkaline or calcareous, as the skimmia plant has difficulty absorbing nutrients from such soil. The pH value of the soil around the plants can be lowered with ericaceous compost or acidic fertiliser.
  • Nutrient Deficiency: If there is a nutrient deficiency, it is often due to the lack of iron, magnesium or nitrogen. In the case of a nitrogen deficiency, the older leaves begin to turn uniformly light green to yellow, depending on the severity of the deficiency. With a magnesium deficiency, the older leaves are also affected first, but the leaf veins stay green. Iron deficiency, on the other hand, appears first with the discolouring of younger leaves, but the leaf veins also remain green. If the soil for the skimmia is too alkaline, a combination of magnesium and potassium deficiency can occur. In this case, apply an acidic fertiliser help to lower the pH. Our Plantura Hydrangea Food is also suitable for skimmias and other bog plants because it lowers the pH and contains iron to compensate for deficiencies in the soil type.
Plantura Hydrangea Food
Plantura Hydrangea Food

With a long-lasting effect, for healthy soil, child & pet friendly

Summary: How to cure yellow leaves on skimmias

  • Plant in a shaded place
  • Plant in acidic soil conditions
  • Use special acidic fertiliser suitable for bog plants
  • Water with acidic rainwater, avoid tap water
Skimmia leaves turning yellow
Yellow leaves can be caused by a lack of water or nutrients [Photo: Tom Curtis/ Shutterstock.com]

How to propagate skimmia

Skimmias are quite easy to propagate. The simplest way to do this is by taking skimmia cuttings. The new plants from these cuttings will be the same sex as the parent plant. To take a cutting, cut off approximately 15 to 20cm long shoots between June and September and remove the lower 3 or 4 leaves. Put the cuttings into a pot with two thirds acidic soil mixed with one third sand. Water them frequently to ensure that the soil is permanently moist. Keep these new skimmia plants in a frost-free place over the winter.

Is skimmia winter hardy?

Most types of skimmia bush are winter-hardy and can survive temperatures as low as -20°C with no problems. Mature, well-established plants do not need winter protection in most regions, however, freshly planted and younger plants do. It is best to cover these plants with a layer of leaves, pine branches or straw.

Keep your potted skimmia plants in a cool, but frost-free place during the winter months where they can receive at least some light.

Skimmia plant covered in snow
Even a layer of snow does not harm mature skimmia shrubs [Photo: Henry Oude Egberink/ Shutterstock.com]

Are skimmia plants poisonous?

All parts of skimmias are considered slightly poisonous. They contain alkaloids which, in small quantities, can cause nausea. Fortunately, pets are not usually interested in the plants. However, the red skimmia berries are a welcome food for birds in winter.

Skimmias are not the only beautiful ornamental shrubs that thrive in acidic growing environments. Rhododendrons also prefer acidic soils and bloom exuberantly in these conditions during the summer. Read our article on rhododendron planting and care to learn more.

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