(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 18, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)
The genus Weigela was named in honour of the German botanist Christian Ehrenfried von Weigel (1748-1831). There are about 10 species in total, all native to open woodlands of eastern Asia. All have tubular to trumpet-shaped flowers, mostly white to red but more rarely yellow. In the garden, they are care-free shrubs, even thriving in relatively polluted sites. For best results, grow them in fertile, moist yet well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. These shrubs can be very floriferous and benefit from the yearly application of a balanced fertilizer such as 15-30-15. The main blooming season is late-spring-early summer but plants often bloom sporadically all summer and into the fall. Weigela are rarely bothered by pests or disease. They may suffer some twig dieback if grown in exposed sites or in borderline hardy regions (zone 4). Trim back these tips in spring and prune out any older, twiggy stems that show signs of reduced flowering. If you enjoy the company of hummingbirds, then this shrub is a must!
The most important species is Weigela florida, a 3 m shrub hardy to zone 5 and milder regions of zone 4. This Korean-Chinese species has been grown in western gardens since the early 1800s and as early as the 1860s, the first larger-flowered selections started to arise. Over 170 selections have been recorded since that time! However, the vast majority are now obscure and have either disappeared or only occur in isolated old gardens. Despite the long history of Weigela as a garden ornamental, plant breeders are still breeding and releasing new cultivars of Weigela. In recent years, most of the breeding work has been to reduce the plant size to make them more amenable to today's smaller gardens and to improve their use as container plants.
Today's vast palette of Weigela cultivars include those with green, purple, golden or variegated foliage, with flowers that vary from white through shades of pink to deep red on plants ranging from 3 m to under 30 cm. First, I'll start with the standard green-leaved cultivars. Among the older cultivars which may still be found are ‘Eva Rathke' (red), ‘Newport Red', ‘Abel Carriere' (white aging to pink), ‘Bristol Ruby' (red) and ‘Bristol Snowflake' (white). All of these can reach 2 m, possibly more. These cultivars are not as hardy as some of the newer ones. For zone 4 there are newer, hardier selections developed by Iowa State University and Agriculture Canada in Ottawa. Among these are ‘Pink Princess' (to 2 m), ‘Red Prince' (1.2-1.7 m), ‘White Knight' (1.2-1.7 m), ‘Rumba' (0.6-1 m, reddish-pink), ‘Polka' (two-tone pink, 1-1.5 m), ‘Tango' (reddish-pink, 0.6-0.8 m) and ‘Minuet' (0.6-1 m, fragrant, reddish-pink, purple-tinted foliage). Finally there is a new French cultivar called Carnaval (aka ‘Courtalour') which grows to 1.5 m with tri-coloured flowers of white, pink and red!
Among the plain green selections are 'Bristol Ruby', 'Pink Princess', 'Red Prince', 'White Knight', 'Minuet' and 'Carnival'
The old standard variegated Weigela was the cultivar ‘Variegata', a cultivar which can reach 2 m plus. The leave edges are yellowish rather than white. The flowers open white and age to pink. It seems that several variegated cultivars were released as ‘Variegata' so the amount of variegation can vary tremendously in this old-fashioned selection. As with many of the old cultivars, ‘Variegata' is not as hardy as today's newer selections. For zone 4, you can select from 'French Lace' (aka ‘Brigela', 1.2-2 m, red), ‘Sunny Princess', a variegated sport of ‘Pink Princess' (pink, 1.5-2 m), 'Gold Rush' (1.4-1.7 m, bright pink) or ‘Eye Catcher' (0.6-1 m, red). If space is limited, try the newest cultivar 'My Monet' (aka ‘Verweig'), a dwarf shrub under 45 cm with pink and cream variegated foliage and pink flowers.
Among the variegated weigela are 'Variegata', 'French Lace', 'Gold Rush' and the dwarfest and newest, 'My Monet'
The old standard purple-leaved Weigela was the cultivar ‘Foliis Purpureus' (aka 'Java Red'), whose leaves were distinctly purple-tinted. The habit is compact and spreading with plants reaching 1.2 m and masses of rosy-pink flowers. Plant breeders quickly began to see potential in this plant for breeding darker purple foliage. Early selections included ‘Victoria' (1.5-2 m) whose leaves were not much more purple than ‘Foliis Purpureus' but had larger flowers.. Then came ‘Java Red' with darker, brownish-purple foliage (almost coffee-coloured). The breakthrough was 'Wine and Roses' (aka ‘Alexandra') whose foliage was deeper, glossier purple. The flowers were still the standard rosy-purple seen in most purple-leaved cultivars and the plant size 1.2-1.6 m. Then came 'Midnight Wine' (aka ‘Elvera') whose dark purple foliage was accented with lighter rosy-pink flowers on very compact (to 60 cm) bushes. Of course, there are now several more purple-leaved cultivars to choose from including 'Fine Wine' (aka ‘Bramwell', 0.6-1 m), ‘Shining Sensation' (1-1.3 m), ‘Dark Horse' (0.6-1 m) and one of my favourites, ‘Ruby Queen' (0.6-1 m) whose leaves come closest to red among the Weigela.
Some purple-leaved selections include 'Foliis Purpurea', 'Tango', 'Wine and Roses', 'Midnight Wine' and 'Dark Horse'; 'Briant Rubidor' is the current standard golden-leaved form
Last we come to the golden-leaved selections. These are extremely few in number...for now! The standard is 'Olympiade' or ‘Briant Rubibor' (synonymous names) whose red flowers contrast with early golden foliage that turns chartreuse as the summer progresses. This old cultivar can reach over 2 m. A new selection is ‘Ghost' which is more compact at 1.2-1.6 m and whose early golden foliage becomes butter-cream later in summer.
What about the future of Weigela? Plant breeders are still working on this very popular landscape shrub. In the future I expect more work to be done on the golden-foliaged types to increase the floral colour range (so far they are only available in red) and to create more compact selections (essentially companions for Midnight Wine and My Monet). Among the purple-leaved selections, more work needs to be done to increase the floral colour range among that group, since only pink to purplish-pink flowers are available at the moment. The future of Weigela still seems bright!
I have many DG members to thank for the use of their pictures: daryl ('Foliis Purpureus'), Equilibrium ('Dark Horse', 'Gold Rush', 'Wine and Roses' and 'White Knight'), jamie68 ('Briant Rubidor'), kniphofia ('French Lace', 'My Monet'), onewish1 ('Carnival'), plantdude ('Tango') and victorgardener ('Midnight Wine')