Horticulture Magazine

Hebe Shrub Care & Growing Tips

hebe veronica in various shades of green

Hebe Overview

Official Plant NameHebe
Plant TypeShrub / Hedging
Native AreaNew Zealand, Rapa, Falklands, South America
Hardiness RatingH4
ToxicityNone
FoliageEvergreen
FlowersRacemes or spikes of small flowers
When To SowApril, May, June, July, August, September
Flowering MonthsJuly, August, September
When To PruneApril, May
Sunlight

Preferred
Full Sun or Partial Shade

Exposure
Sheltered

Size

Height
0.5 – 1M

Spread
0.5 – 1M

Bloom Time
July – September

Soil

Preferred
Most Soil Types

Moisture
Moist but well drained

pH
Alkaline / Neutral

Hebe is a plant known to be bushy and sprawling to upright and trim, with foliage ranging from greyish blue-green to a brilliant emerald hue. With inflorescences in all kinds of shapes including spires, sprays, and ‘puffballs,’ and in colours ranging from pastel pink to deep purple, this shrub spoils you for choice. These immensely likeable plants are low-care evergreens; they are easy as 1-2-3: Plant, Gaze, and be Delighted!

Do you like staggering variety in size, in shape, in colour? Or do you like alluring hues in flower and in leaf? Or do you like low-maintenance? Or do you like butterfly-and-bee attractants? Or do you like evergreens? Or do you like inflorescences? Wait— don’t worry yourself with picking and choosing. You can say, “I like it all and want it all,” and get a few Hebe varieties!

an orange butterfly sat on white hebe blooms
Hebe Blossoms are ‘Guaranteed’ to Attract Butterflies and Bees

Hebe is a genus of evergreens that is native to New Zealand. They are evergreens and are technically shrubs, most of which are of a bushy habit though there is variation in size; two or three species can reach even 2 to 2.5 metres in height. Some species have a mat-forming habit and a few have an erect habit.

Though Hebe varieties’ leaves are simple and paired, quite a number of varieties are interesting for – besides other properties – the foliage, as their leaves display unusual textures, hues of green, or eye-catching variegation. As for the flowers, their delightful inflorescences come in a diversity of shapes – tubular, sprays, spires, rays, salvers, ‘puffballs’ – and a range of colours across the blue-red spectrum, from the palest pastel to the deepest tone. Adding to their charms, they flower all through summer and autumn with some varieties producing blooms in winter as well!

These wonderful plants are not only diverse and delightful, they are easy-care, trouble-free, tough, and well-suited to the British Isles as evidenced by the fact that RHS has accorded its Award of Garden Merit to 30 Hebe varieties.

If you’re not a professional horticulturist or a ‘semi-pro’ anthophile but are a layman who takes pleasure and joy from Nature’s boon of flowering plants in all their diverse beauty, then Hebe is one of your top picks. 

purple hebe flowers in bloom
Hebe Spiked Inflorescences With a Deep Purple Hue

Background and Origins

So as to preclude any confusion that may arise, it is necessary at the outset to mention that Botanical classification and taxonomy of genera and species are subject to disagreement and revision, and Hebe is a prime example of such disagreement. The Royal Horticultural Society, among other authorities, considers Hebe a distinct genus of the Family Plantaginaceae. Kew and other authorities have a different perspective; they classify (the species of) Hebe along with (the species of) several other genera under Genus Veronica, also in Family Plantaginaceae. 

That is the ultra-concise version as botanists keep playing ping-pong with Hebe, and chopping and changing what belongs where. For instance, even as Genus Hebe was subsumed within Genus Veronica by some scientists, others segregated a species group from Genus Hebe to its own, new, genus! Even the number of species in the genus is in dispute because there is no consensus as to which species belongs where.

In our overview we treat Hebe as a genus, i.e. Genus Hebe. It has about 189 species and about 800 cultivars. Of the 189 species only 15 are officially accepted!

Hebe is a fairly ancient plant; at least, it pre-dates our kind. For the origins of Hebe we have to go back to the Pliocene Epoch (5.3 million years B.C. to 1.8 million years B.C.) when they co-existed with mastodons and glyptodonts, shortly before Australopithecine appeared on the scene. The Pliocene was cooler and dryer than the epochs which preceded it, providing just the right climate for the new plants to thrive in what was to become New Zealand.

After much hybridisation and cultivation, quite a staggering variety of Hebe plants have been developed. Partly as a result of these efforts they are – at least superficially if not morphologically – wonderfully varied and disparate as we shall see in the survey underneath. 

Varieties

H. albicans is a species distinguished by thick, somewhat rubbery, leaves that have a greyish blue-green colour. It reaches about 60 centimetres and has a bushy habit. It bears oval-shaped creamy white inflorescences which bloom from summer right to the end of autumn. This species has been awarded the RHS’s Award of Garden Merit.

H. ‘Emerald Gem’ has a wonderfully tidy habit such that this 50-centimetre semi-dwarf shrub stays in a compact, round shape. The stiff, spire-like pointy leaves are an eye-pleasing shade of clear emerald green. Add to all this its ability to adapt to any soil and resist pests and diseases, and it’s easy to see why it was awarded the RHS’s Award of Garden Merit.

H. cupressoides ‘Boughton Dome’ reminds one of a Bonsai conifer as this 40- to 50-centimetre variety also has a marvellous self-maintained habit, growing in a dome or teardrop shape that needs no maintenance. It bears no flowers and its needle-like leaves are of a bluish slate-green hue. It is of obvious architectural interest and application.

evergreen Boughton Dome growing in a field
The Wonderful Habit and Dome-Like Shape of H. cupressoides ‘Boughton Dome’

H. × andersonii is a giant among Hebe, usually reaching 2 metres with long-lived plants going past 2.5 metres, and attaining a width to match. Though its foliage is of little interest, it provides stunning tubular sprays of a bright, rich purple hue. It has a decent flowering season, bears profuse blooms, and attracts butterflies and bees to boot.

H. ‘Youngii’ is at the other extreme in height; this mat-forming dwarf reaches no more than 20 centimetres. It has deep green shiny leaves, and it bears small flowers which boast (four) discrete petals. Their colour ranges from lavender to purple with the white throats providing a lovely counterpoint for this winner of the Award of Garden Merit.

H. ‘Wiri Cloud’ is a compact variety with a bushy, mounding habit. The leaves are somewhat rubbery and have a rich, deep green hue. It too bears tiny flowers which are single or double, and does so profusely in the summer. These pretty flowers are often gently gradated from pale pastel pink to a magenta-pink on this Award of Garden Merit recipient.

Australian Painted Lady Butterfly sat on hebe plant
H. ‘Wiri’ Varieties Draw Butterflies and Bees

H. ‘Nicola’s Blush’ is a semi-dwarf that has a bushy, rounded habit and reaches 60 to 70 centimetres. Its grey-green leaves are lance shaped but its the inflorescences whose shape and colour are the point of interest. White but with a rouge-like ‘blush’ at the tip, these amusing flowers resemble bottlebrushes or hair-curlers. It’s another recipient of the Award of Garden Merit. 

H. buxifolia “Patty’s Purple” also has a bushy, mounding habit but otherwise is different. It grows to 70 to 90 centimetres in height and width. The ovate leaves are an emerald green and the tapering, spiked inflorescences are brilliant purple fading to white at the base as the buds open. It’s all about colour with this cultivar as even the stalks are a deep red.

H. ‘Oratia Beauty’ has similarly bi-coloured tapering and spiked inflorescences whose tips are a gentle pink; as the pink buds open, they fade to white at the base. The ovate leaves are glossy and have a rubbery look on this bushy cultivar that reaches up to 75 centimetres. This variety is especially attractive to bees and butterflies, and it has been recognised with the Award of Garden Merit.

white and pink H. ‘Oratia Beauty’
The Spiked Pink-White Inflorescences of H. ‘Oratia Beauty’

H. Garden Beauty Blue = ‘Cliv’ has a bushy, mounding habit that grows to just under a metre tall and wide. The name of the game here is colour saturation in both leaf and flower. The glossy leaves are a rich, deep green; the small flowers are an even deeper, richer shade of purple. Other attractions of this variety are its especially dense foliage and its great profusion of flowers. 

H. ‘Blue Clouds’ is of a bushy habit and may attain a maximum height of 1 metre. Both the leaves and flowers are points of interest; the lance-shaped leaves are glossy and dull-green but they become clearly bluish-purplish in winter while the spike-like flowers vary from light blue to a rich purple in this Award of Garden Merit-winning cultivar.

H. recurva ‘Boughton Silver’ is silvery in both foliage and flower. The lanceolate leaves are blue-green with a distinct silvery-grey sheen while the inflorescences’ sprays are silvery-white, and which attract bees and butterflies in droves. It grows to only about 60 centimetres and has a bushy and spreading habit. 

H. ‘Rhubarb and Custard’ may have a precious name but it is an apt one. Though this cultivar bears small spikes of lavender-to-purple flowers in the mid-late summer, the focus is more on foliage. The thick oval leaves are variegated; they are deep green with blotches of magenta-pink and irregular bordering in custard-yellow. It is of a bushy, mounding habit.

H. ‘Frozen Flame’ has similarities to ‘Rhubarb and Custard’ in both flower, foliage, and even height and habit. What is different is that the leaves are lance-like and the colouring is less random and more regulated as the yellow-cream colour properly edges the leaf and the magenta spreads from the centre, gradually taking over most or all of the leaf in winter.  

Compare both the above varieties with H. speciosa ‘Variegata’ and H. Purple Shamrock for interesting minor variations.

lilac pink florets of hebe
A Macro Shot of a Hebe Floral Spray Showing Delicate Lilac-Pink Florets

Habitat & Growing Conditions

All but a few species of Hebe are native to New Zealand. Though they grow throughout the island country, one cluster of species is partial to riparian zones and another grouping is concentrated in the country’s sub-alpine locations. In the wild these plants are found in open, unsheltered areas where they get full sun and also ‘full wind,’ so to speak.

Therefore, these fuss-free plants are happiest in full sun but also do well in partial shade. As a bonus, aspect has no bearing on these plants.

They are more tolerant of stiff winds than other similarly-sized plants. Even where soil is concerned these plants make do with what is available and do very well in loose soil that is less than rich. 

The variance and diversity in Hebe extends to their USDA Hardiness Zones which range from a low of 7 to a high of 11. Some varieties, such as ‘Emerald Gem,’ have a hardiness zone of 7 to 9 while others, such as Hebe spp. & cvs and Hebe imbricata are hardy from zone 8 through 11. For the most part Hebe varieties’ Hardiness Zones are 8 to 9.

When and Where to Plant Hebe

April to June is the best time to plant (or transplant) Hebe plants outdoors. This would allow ample time for their roots to get established before the onset of winter. You can help along new plants’ root systems by watering them but not giving them any fertilizer.

Hebe can be planted in most any type of soil including poor soil. What they value more than anything else is sun and light, so put them in a location where they get full sun or the maximum amount of sun. This should not be misunderstood to mean that Hebe prefer high heat; in fact, they do best where the summers are cool to temperate.

You don’t have to plant Hebe by the seaside or in a coastal area but this is one plant that you can grow without any anxiety in locations which have that tang of sea-salt – sea spray – in the air.

a hebe bush with the sea in the background
Hebe Bush in Bloom with the Open Sea in the Background

Hebe plants should be planted in the appropriate location depending on the size, habit, foliage, and flowers of the variety in question. Though Hebe plants are considered – with justification – ideally suited to informal gardens and cottage gardens, their enormous diversity means that a few varieties would be top choices for architectural plantings, e.g. H. ‘Emerald Gem’ and Hebe salicifolia, while some varieties would be top choices for balcony pots, e.g. H. ‘Red Edge’ and H. ‘Youngii.’ 

H. ‘Emerald Gem’ in a wicker basket
A Novel Idea for Showing Off H. ‘Emerald Gem’

Feeding, Care & Growing Tips

Hebe does not need or even really benefit a great deal from being fed. That said, they can certainly be given some 5-10-10 fertilizer or bone meal in spring. Where Hebe and fertilizing are concerned, experiment but be conservative and cautious.

Soil may be virtually any type at all except for heavy, dense, clay soils. Slightly Alkaline pH is ideal though the pH may be anything from Neutral to Moderately Alkaline.

These plants should have well-drained soil but even here what is a ‘must’ for the vast majority of plants is a ‘nice to have’ for most varieties.

The one area that Hebe do require a watchful eye, and care as needed, is where the winter weather is concerned. Be aware of the hardiness zones of your Hebe varieties because most of them are right on the border for United Kingdom locations. If you live in a cold region and you feel your Hebe may not be hardy, play it safe, mulch the plant, and shelter it from the weather.

Pruning

Hebe should regularly be deadheaded through the flowering season to encourage flowering.

As in other respects, the need to prune Hebe plants for shaping and landscaping varies strongly on the particular variety. Some varieties – for example H. “Neil’s Choice” which is of a bushy habit that can get limp or leggy – have such habits and growth as call for pruning whereas other varieties – for example H. ‘Boughton Dome’ which has a tidy, symmetric habit – are of such upright and neat habits that there is seldom any reason to prune them for reasons of shaping or landscaping.

As for the health benefits, most Hebe plants will respond well to careful pruning. You can prune flowering Hebe varieties right after the blooms have faded by cutting back the foliage from about a third to about a half.

Common Diseases & Problems

Hebe are worry-free plants for reasons that include their relative freedom from pests and diseases. Once in a while some or another plant may be attacked by aphids or suffer from downy mildew. 

If your plant is affected by downy mildew, the diseased parts of the plant should immediately be removed. The plant should get plenty of sun and air, and should not be sheltered by other plants.

Aphids are a serious and dangerous type of infestation because of the rapidity with which they breed and also the rapid harm they cause to the plant. To combat aphids try a one percent solution of Orthene on and around the area of infestation.

Where to Buy Hebe

Numerous Hebe varieties are sold by nurseries throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. Hebe can be bought on site and also ordered for delivery as potted plants. Seed packets are also popular options.

flowering hebe bushes with a lake in the background
Hebe Bush in Bloom in the English Countryside

Hebe can also be grown by cuttings. In August cut off a fresh branch or shoot from 8 to 10 centimetres, remove the leaves, and trim it to just underneath a leaf node. Insert the cutting up to halfway into compost, and moderately water it daily. In colder climes bottom heat may be beneficial or even essential.

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