Leucothoe fontanesiana 'Rainbow'

Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow’        Family: Ericaceae
(lew-KO-tho-ee  fon-ta-nee-zee-AH-na)

Syn. Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Girard’s Rainbow’
Common name: Rainbow leucothoe, Girard’s rainbow, rainbow fetterbush, dog hobble, drooping leucothoe
Zone: 5 – 9
Height: 4 – 5 ft (1.2 – 1.5 m)
Spread: 3 – 4 ft (0.9 – 1.2 m)
Aspect: partial shade; full shade
Soil: humus-rich; well-draining
Water: moderate

Description: An evergreen shrub with cascading form and slow growth rate. Bright green, leathery, lanceolate-shaped leaves are splashed with varying degrees of white and pink. Fall foliage colours are a rainbow of deep burgundy, bright red, oranges, and yellows. White flowers are displayed in drooping clusters in spring.


Special Notes: The species, Leucothoe fontanesiana, is native to the eastern part of North America. This particular cultivar was discovered as a seedling at the Hillier Nurseries in England.

While most references state leucothoe should be planted in at least partial shade, some have confessed to giving it full sun. The amount of sun this shrub receives daily will directly impact on how much variable colour will develop on the leaves. The more sun, the more colour. However, it has been stated, extended direct sun can scorch, thus damaging the leaves.


Caution: Leaves and flower nectar are highly toxic if ingested. Harmful to children, pets, horses, and especially goats.


In our Zone 7a garden: Our leucothoe shrub is planted along the edge of the driveway, in some very tough soil. It is part of a delightful mass planting of admirable shrubs (Kerria japonica, oakleaf hydrangea, Skimmia japonica, Leucothoe, Viburnum davidii) which have now all grown together. All but the kerria are evergreen, and because of the mass overlapping of branches, it is difficult to get much amendment material underneath, although we do try. Another factor in that bed are roots from two large maple trees nearby.

I mention all of this because every resource claimed Leucothoe fontanesiana prefers moist, humus-rich, well-draining soil. They also claim this shrub does not tolerate drought. Well…in our garden, this shrub is not planted in humus-rich soil and it does not get much moisture…competing as it does with trees and other mature shrubs. And yet, it thrives beautifully.

If I was to change one thing about its placement, it would be to give it more sun. Mine is sited in almost complete shade…getting only a little sun late in the day. And this impacts on the colour variation in its leaves. Mine are mostly green with a bit of white. I have to wait until autumn to get the beautiful rainbow display.

As for its toxicity…while I do not doubt the warnings I read concerning this shrub, our grandchildren and two dogs have never attempted to pick the leaves or chewed on them. But then, I have taught the kids they are not to put anything in their mouths without first asking Grandma if it is edible. And all of our dogs have been trained not to chew on our plants, or dig holes in the beds. Goats, indeed, would be another matter.


Posted on September 12, 2016
Updated on March 30, 2022