Cleyera (Ternstroemia gymnanthera) stands out among other evergreen shrubs with its colorful, glossy foliage. Sometimes sold under the name Cleyera japonica, it grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 8 through 10, where it serves several roles. Cleyera provides year-round interest and demands little care, but you should understand its needs and traits before you plant one.
It's a Looker
Reaching 8 to 10 feet tall with a 6-foot spread, cleyera makes an assertive addition to the yard. It is clad in dense masses of glossy, evergreen leaves, which change color from red to green during the growing season. Tiny white flowers emerge in spring and are replaced by 1-inch-long oval berries. Cultivars, such as Bronze Beauty (Cleyera japonica "Conthery") differ slightly in appearance, producing bronze-colored new foliage that matures to solid green. Its dimensions are roughly the same as standard cleyera shrubs, but it is slightly more cold-tolerant and will grow in USDA zones 7 through 10.
Cleyera's dense, upright growth habit make it a good choice for hedging, but it also works well as a stand-alone specimen plant due to its attractive vase shape and showy foliage. Because it responds well to pruning, a cleyera shrub can also be pruned into a standard or a multitrunked tree to show its graceful structure. Cleyera shrubs used for a hedge or screen should be planted 3 to 6 feet apart on a staggered line to maximize their foliage coverage while allowing them plenty of room to spread their roots. Those pruned into a tree form should be planted well away from driveways and streets because their low-growing canopies may catch on or block taller vehicles.
Hardy and adaptable, cleyera will grow better and live longer if planted in the right conditions. A lightly shaded, fast-draining site with acidic soil provides the best environment for growing cleyera, although it will tolerate full sun in cooler climates. Don't plant it in alkaline soil because it will increase the chances of chlorosis, an iron deficiency that causes yellowed foliage and slow growth. Also, avoid planting it under a deciduous tree that casts heavy shade because it may suffer leaf burn when exposed to winter sunshine after the tree loses its leaves.
Keeping It Healthy
Once established in a suitable site, a cleyera seldom needs hands-on care or maintenance. It generally doesn't have issues with pests or diseases. Water it weekly to a depth of 1 inch during the summer, especially in warmer climates or during times of extreme drought. Stop watering in winter or during rainy weather. Routine feeding is not necessary, although a 3-inch layer of compost spread beneath the drip line of the shrub will provide a constant, low-level source of nutrients while keeping weeds at bay. Cleyera grows slowly and seldom needs pruning, but you can pinch it back in spring to encourage a more compact shape.