Too bad plants don’t come with “buyer-beware” tags that admit all flaws up front. If they did, we gardeners would know what we’re up against from the beginning, rather than getting surprised by pest problems after we’ve already bought and planted. The plant that inspired my “buyer-beware” theory is the popular landscape shrub, red tip photinia (Photinia x fraseri).

Red tip leaf spot

Look for signs of Entomosporium leaf spot on your red tip photinias.

Photo Credit: Sarah L. Ivy

Red tip hedge

Homeowners like red tips for their colorful new growth and as a fast-growing hedge.

Photo Credit: Sarah L. Ivy

Red tip phontinia

Prune the lower branches of your red tips to increase air movement and help prevent the spread of fungal spores.

Photo Credit: Sarah L. Ivy

Most affectionately referred to as simply “red tip,” this photinia is often desired as a relatively fast-growing living screen. And as its nickname describes, the plant has brilliant red new growth in spring, as well as beautiful off-white flowers, making it even more popular.

When red tip photinia was introduced to the plant industry, its popularity was phenomenal. Homeowners and commercial industry alike incorporated rows and rows of red tips into landscapes to achieve fast-growing, lush screens in a short period of time. But like most “perfect plants,” red tip started showing its true color after a few years.

Aside from some pretty positive physical characteristics, red tips suffer from a life-threatening disease called Entomosporium leaf spot. The disease is caused by the fungus Entomosporium maculatum, and it’s very difficult to control.

Symptoms of Entomosporium leaf spot usually begin on the lower branches of the shrub, and with a little help from splashing rain, the problem eventually spreads its way up to infect the entire plant. Infected young leaves start showing small, circular, bright red spots. Older infected leaves develop spots that are gray in the center with a maroon border. A few spots here and there aren’t really much of a concern, but a severe infection could lead to leaf drop – and even plant death!

Treatment for this leaf spot is tricky. Although there are some fungicides that can be used as a preventative spray, once a leaf is infected, there’s no way to “cure” it – you can only hope to contain the spread of the disease. This often makes fungicide applications futile. But the good news is that a mere rake and a pair of pruners may be the answer to keeping your red tips safe from becoming spotted.

Entomosporium spores spread through water and are often splashed back up onto the plant from fallen infected leaves on the ground. So if you simply prune your shrub’s lower limbs from touching the ground, there’s less of a chance for them to splash spores back up to the plant. This technique also allows for air to move freely around the base of the shrub, preventing moisture on the lower leaves.

It’s also possible to reduce the spread of leaf spot by doing a little cleanup around the base of your red tips. In addition to trimming around the base of the shrub, rake up infected leaves that fall to the ground and remove them from the area as soon as possible.

Although these easy techniques do help prevent the spread of Entomosporium leaf spot, don’t feel too defeated if you lose the battle on occasion – it’s a pretty nasty fungus! And if you really must plant red tips in your landscape, always choose disease-free plants from the start and consider interplanting with a non-susceptible species like wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera). Some other alternatives include camellia species (Camellia), which has desirable flowers; Japanese ternstroemia (Ternstroemia gymnanthera), which is nice because it resembles a red tip, with red new growth in spring; and many viburnums (Viburnum).

So that’s my “buyer-beware” tag for red tip photinia. It’s a beautiful shrub, but it comes with a price that goes beyond the wallet. So if you want one in your garden, here’s best “tip” I can give you: Plant with caution, and keep those pruners sharp and rake handy!