Hear the word “spectacular” uttered in a garden, and you can expect your head to be turned to something that is wonderfully colorful.
But every rule has its exception.
The Northwest native Garrya elliptica is one of them. Commonly known as Coast Silktassel, one look at it at this time of year and chances are you’ll mutter “spectacular” as you take in its monochromatic splendor.
A robust shrub, reaching 10 to 20 feet tall, with an equal width, this plant can be easily trained as a small garden tree. The evergreen foliage is dense, dark green, leathery and somewhat crinkled. Elliptical in shape, the leaves reach about 2 1/2 inches in length. Both male and female members of this species are worth having.
In late winter to early spring, multiple clusters of flower tassels emerge in yellowish gray-green, dangling down as much as eight inches on the male of the species. These unusual flowers hang on well into summer. The effect is one of falling water.
The flowers of the female plant are shorter, rarely more than 3 1/2 inches, but turn into handsome fruit clusters that hang on all summer, unless the birds discover them.
Seattle’s legendary plantsman, Arthur Lee Jacobson, often leads tours of the Washington Park Arboretum for youngsters. Ever the merrymaker, Jacobson has a favorite gag. As he tells it: “Squishing some berries in one’s fingers results in a striking blood-like juice squirting. When leading tours that involve children, I demonstrate this by pretending, ‘Oops, I cut my hand!’ Then I lick off the blood, which is sweet-tasting. Then I tell the kids, ‘If you do this, your mom will freak out.’”
Jacobson goes on to suggest that most local cultivated Garrya specimens (ellipitica and hybrids) are male, because the floral catkins are prettier than the female. He suggests it is ideal to grow both sexes in order to get the berries. Yet another example of the fruits of true love.
I grow my plant in full sun, in our naturally rich acidic soil and give it little, if any, summer water. If I prune the plant, I do it when the catkins are at their peak, so as to enjoy the flowers in vases indoors.
I’ve grown mine as a shrub, but if you want it up as a small-scale tree for your Madison Park garden, select one or three main stems and, as the plant grows taller, prune off shoots that emerge along the trunks, encouraging the plant to stretch up.
A light application of a complete fertilizer in early spring, again late in the season and in early summer, will ensure strong growth and an abundance of blossoms. Paired to grow up and behind lower-growing shrubs that have colorful flowers, this dark green mass, with its cascading tassels, makes for a very dramatic combination.
When Shakespeare said, “All that glistens is not gold,” he might have said it differently had he been looking at a Garrya elliptical in full bloom when the muse struck. All that’s dazzling is not colorful. Here’s a plant that proves it.