Loved as garden shrubs for over a century, there are 11 species here all from the eastern parts of Asia. They are usually profuse bloomers flowering in late spring or early summer. Blossoms can be white, red, any shade of pink, or in one species, yellow. A few of them are fragrant. Although in the wild they are pollinated almost exclusively by bees, in North America, they have become the darlings of hummingbirds.
Weigela have simple, opposite, elliptic leaves and a preference for moist, humusy, well drained soil. In the wild they usually grow in scrubland, clearings in the woods, or on the edges of forests. Sun to partial shade suits them fine, though they flower best in full sun. They are intolerant of wind and drought. Propagation can be accomplished by either seed or semi-hardwood cuttings in summer.
The genus is named for German scientist and gardener Christian Ehrenfried Weigel, who discovered them. Scottish plant hunter Robert Fortune brought the first weigelas from Japan to England in 1845 and the Sheffield Botanic Garden is home to the British National Collection of these shrubs. With their profuse and showy blooms and ease of care, weigelas were an instant hit with gardeners! They also hybridize very freely, and soon new and ever more fabulous cultivars were being introduced!
If you’re going to be successful with weigelas on the prairies, the first thing you have to understand is that not all species are totally hardy here, and even those that are require specific locations. They are not easy care plants.
Full sun and compost enriched, moist soil in a sheltered spot will give you the best results. They like basically the same conditions as hydrangeas, and can make very good companions for each other.
Weigela blooms on the previous year’s wood, so even a variety that survives here may not necessarily provide you with blossoms. Those that do will still need some pruning in order to perform their best; the oldest, largest branches should be clipped back hard after flowering in order to stimulate new growth. This encourages vigor and better blooming.
Like hydrangeas, when you look at the mature size of a weigela on a tag or label, it tells you the maximum size that shrub is capable of achieving under ideal growing conditions. Average size for prairie weigelas is 2-4 ft. tall and wide, with the exception of the cultivar ‘Centennial’, which can be as tall as 7 ft.
Weigela florida and Weigela praecox are the two hardiest species. W. florida is from China, Korea, and Japan and can grow 8-10 ft. tall and just as wide. It is quite fast growing and a profuse bloomer. It occasionally produces specimens with bronze or purple colored foliage, and from these, several cultivars including the very popular ‘Wine and Roses’ have been developed. This species is hardy to zone 4.
W. praecox is also native to cold regions in Asia, and it grows about 8 ft. tall. It can be quite woody with age and sometimes suffers considerable dieback in very cold regions but it usually recovers quite quickly. It is easily propagated by seed or cuttings. The large flowers are light pink, often with yellow throats, and scented of honey. They appear in great profusion in early summer. It is hardy to zone 3.
Weigelas often show up in garden centers in large pots when they are in full bloom and few gardeners can resist them. They are taken home, planted and more often than not, that weigela never makes another appearance again which leaves the gardener wondering what went wrong. Usually, a lack of success with weigela means that it was either not a hardy variety (very common) or it was planted in a bad location. (Windy and dry.) Sometimes it is a combination of these things.
If you have planted a weigela and failed, try again. When well grown and well placed, they are stunning and few shrubs have the power to attract bees and hummingbirds like they do. They are also extraordinarily long lived, and can easily last 30 or 40 years.
The following cultivars and hybrids are all varieties you are likely to encounter, with mixed results:
‘Bristol Ruby’- An old British cultivar that usually reaches 4-5 ft. tall, but can occasionally be as tall as 8 ft. It is a vigorous grower and profuse bloomer; the flowers are very dark red. Although it often survives on the prairies, it usually suffers terrible dieback here and rarely flowers well.
‘Bristol Snowflake’ is similar but has white instead of red blossoms and is a bit shorter. Curiously, it seems hardier than its red counterpart, especially in a sheltered corner.
The ‘Dance’ series of weigelas were introductions from the Experimental Farm in Ottawa. There are five of them, and they are widely regarded as being among the hardiest weigelas available. All of them are absolutely worth trying in a prairie garden, and all are also very profuse bloomers and showy.
- ‘Minuet’- 2 ft. tall x 3 ft. wide. One of the hardiest weigelas, this one even succeeds on a farm in a fairly open site. The flowers are light pink and faintly fragrant. It flowers abundantly in June. The foliage has a decidedly purple tint, particularly on the new growth. Zone 2.
- ‘Rumba’- 3 x 3. An explosion of brilliant, cherry-red flowers in early summer. Absolutely stunning and very hardy. Zone 3.
- ‘Samba’- 3 x 3. Coppery bronze new growth accentuates gorgeous light pink flowers with dark pink throats. Zone 3.
- ‘Tango’- 2 x 2. Little and compact, this variety has smoky purple foliage and fabulous, reddish pink flowers. It blooms very reliably and has leafed to the tips after winter temperatures as cold as -34 Celsius. Zone 2.
- ‘Polka’- 3-4 ft. tall and slightly wider than tall. Flowers are bright pink. What sets this one apart is the very lengthy bloom season- it flowers for up to two weeks longer than any of the others! Zone 3.
It is not surprising that the hardiest weigelas in the world are Canadian, or that they came from the Morden Research Station in Manitoba. ‘Centennial’ is widely regarded as the hardiest of all. It can tolerate temperatures as cold as -37 Celsius and leaf out with no problems! It will grow 5-7 ft. tall and 2-3 ft. wide, even on the prairies. The flowers are bright pink, and it flowers extravagantly in June. If not pruned regularly, it will become very twiggy and develop lots of “bare legs” and lose its vigor, so keep that in mind. Absolutely faithful and reliable. Zone 2.
The other really excellent variety from Morden is ‘Dropmore Pink’. It grows 4-6 ft. tall and has lighter pink blooms than ‘Centennial’. It is also not as showy, so it has never become as popular. Zone 2.
And the last cultivars we will review are not from Morden, but are still worth exploring.
‘Red Prince’- An introduction from Iowa State University, this variety grows 6 ft. tall and flowers exuberantly even from a very young age. The flowers are a brilliant cardinal red and after the first initial flush of blooms in summer, it often flowers again (though less profusely) in late summer. The blossoms do not fade or bleach to pink as some red weigelas are known to do. Every gardener is going to buy this variety at least once. It is impossible not to. They show up in garden centers early in the year when our resistance is low anyway, often in two gallon pots and flowering their little hearts out. You will purchase one the instant you see it. Plant it in the most sheltered site you have, and mulch it really well. It may or may not come back for you, and it's probably going to have tipkill or dieback, but this is many people’s first introduction into how beautiful these shrubs really are. Zone 4.
‘Carnival’- 3-4 ft. tall, this weigela creates a bicolored effect. The blooms open a dark pink but quickly fade to light pink, creating a two toned look! It is very showy and much loved. Like ‘Red Prince’, if often reflowers to a lesser extent in late summer. Zone 4.
‘Dark Horse’- Developed.by Monrovia Nurseries in California, this beauty has bronzy purple foliage and blooms that are almost magenta! It is very showy! Grows 3 x 3. Zone 4.
‘Rubidor’- 4 x 5. Absolutely gorgeous, luminous golden-green foliage crowned by flashy, hot pink-red blossoms. Quite literally show-stopping! It’s hardy to about zone 5. It's not likely to overwinter here, but it's useful in a container.
There are a number of variegated cultivars of weigela. Some of them are very beautiful but they tend to leave much to be desired as perennials given that they are marginally hardy at best. As a general rule, variegated weigelas should be disregarded in our climate. Most of them are not prairie hardy and not particularly vigorous growers. That said, they are useful in containers and treated as annuals, or (if you're super keen and willing to experiment) threat them like tea roses and carefully protect each winter.