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Plant of the Week: Redtip Photinia

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Redtip Photinia
Latin: Photinia x fraseri

Picture of Redtipped Photinia hedge featuring red tipped leaves.

Every plant has a story to tell and these columns are an attempt to record some of these tales. My mind seldom wanders far from plants, but with tax time rapidly approaching, necessity requires I focus a bit of attention on getting the tax forms finished.

While doing this, I recall the connection between taxes and one of the South’s most ubiquitous shrubs, the Redtip Photinia.

The Redtip Photinia (Photinia x fraseri) is a large evergreen shrub that can reach 15 feet with a spread of 10 feet or more. In the spring, and during the summer as new flushes of growth appear, shoots emerge in a blaze of red leaves. The 5-inch long leaves remain red for two to three weeks and then turn a glossy green.

Photinias belong to the rose family and have flowers typical of that group. The white flowers, which have a reputation for being malodorous, are individually small but borne in terminal panicles to five inches across. Because most redtips are so severely pruned to maintain size, few ever see the flowers.

Redtip photinia was discovered about 1940 by Ollie W. Fraser, the owner of Fraser Nursery in Birmingham, Ala. Only one plant in a batch of Photinia serrulata seedlings was different, apparently a natural hybrid with a P. glabra that was growing nearby. He recognized the unique characteristics of the plant and propagated a few to watch it as it grew.

Fraser, a second-generation nurseryman, grew many of his plants from seed and is remembered in the Birmingham area for a number of crapemyrtles and hollies that he produced. But it was redtip photinia that gained him immortality in the annals of horticulture.

Fraser’s discovery of his photinia coincided with World War II and the Federal government’s need for extra income to finance the war effort. Federal income taxes were not new, having been initiated in 1862 during the Civil War. In 1872, the government did away with the federal income tax and went instead with sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco.

Then in 1913, the 16th Amendment to the Constitution made the federal income tax a permanent feature of American life. But the voluntary tax system let a lot of people slip through the cracks. In 1942, legislation was passed requiring that taxes be withheld from the paychecks of salaried employees. By casting a wider net, revenues increased from $7 billion in 1940 to $43 billion by the end of the war.

Withholding taxes from paychecks was widely unpopular, so the government had to sell the idea to the citizenry. One of the most unusual of these sales approaches was a Disney film (The New Spirit) commissioned by the Treasury Department in which Donald Duck tells the audience, "It is your privilege, not just your duty, but your privilege to help your government by paying your tax and paying it promptly."

Mr. Fraser must have missed the film. According to Birmingham nursery lore, Fraser thought it was a sign of creeping socialism, so he refused to participate. This went on for two years, and then the government shut him down. The following spring, he opened the nursery again, but this time in his wife’s name. A couple years later, they shut that firm down. The third time the nursery opened, he listed one of his children as president.

Eventually, the tax issues must have been resolved, because by 1955 he was selling redtip cuttings to Tom Dodd, a Mobile nurseryman who introduced many new plants to southern gardeners. Mr. Fraser never patented his plant, perhaps a sign that he held little regard for government programs that he saw as an impediment to free trade. As popular as the plant became, this oversight can only be judged as a mistake.

Redtip photinia has gone on to become one of the South’s signature plants. It appeared during the period that songwriter Greg Brown refers to it in his The Poet Game when he says, "It only took thirty years to turn this country into one coast-to-coast strip mall."

Overused, planted in areas too small for its large dimensions, and now afflicted with a serious leaf disease, redtip photinia is falling from favor. So have taxes, but both will remain with us for a long time.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - April 2, 2004


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.