By November colour in the alpine garden can be lacking, few plants having the temerity to flower in the bleak weather. For those who possess a lime-free soil whether leafy, peaty or sandy – for the first two can be added if necessary- pernettyas come into their own. Although their small white or pink, usually urn-shaped flowers are borne in May or June the resulting berries are longlasting and come in white , pink , purple or reddish. Pernettya 'Pearls' is shown here. Those who have an alkaline soil may yet resort to pots, troughs or tubs. Indeed, Pernettya tasmanica, with abundant globose red fruits, was given an AM in 1990. The award plant had been grown in a pot although perfectly hardy. It will attain 8cm in height and 30 cm across while there is a white form ‘Moonstone’. A yellow berried form is also known. In the garden the berries are, mercifully, largely ignored by our feathered friends.
Pernettya pumila (syn P.empetrifolia), the “mountain berry”, is widespread between the Falkland Islands, Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the Andes. Forming a mat of branching reddish brown stems covered with tiny rounded, darkly glossy green leaves it is rarely more than 5cm high, with a spread of up to 60cm. The fruits may be whitish tinged pink, pink or purply and sometimes remain until the plant flowers again in May. A rock garden or peat bed suits it admirably.
Pernettya mucronata is taller and bushy. There are forms which are 1.2m in both height and breadth but all are particularly hardy and showy plants. The named variety ‘Stag River’, AM 1981, has pinky mauve berries in quantity and was about 22cm by a compact55cm, having been dug up for the occasion. It is believed to be a hermaphrodite, though pernettyas tend to be dioecious and it is sensible to include a known male among a small group to ensure good fruiting, which is dependent on pollination by wind or insects.
Pernettya prostrata, at 15-30cm high and 30cm across, is a good subject for a peat bed: with oval, dark green leaves and globular blue-purple fruits. All the pernettyas need ample lime-free water in the growing season. They may be propagated by half-ripe cuttings taken in August- early September, seed sown in March or by lifting rooted runners. Nor are they difficult to grow or subject to pests or diseases. Light shade suits them well. Try them and you will be well rewarded in the dull days of winter – and again in May. The closely related but rare Pernettya poeppigii is hown in flower here.