Tree Talk: Honey bush — an unlikely favorite

Tree Talk: Honey bush — an unlikely favorite

Tree Talk: Honey bush — an unlikely favorite

The handsome foliage you see arching out and fanning out, topped by dark and exotic blooms, belongs to Melianthus major. It is commonly called honey bush and is native to South Africa. 

I stumbled onto this in a nursery about 20 years ago. The tag said, “Not reliably hardy in the Pacific Northwest [always a challenge to be met], to be treated as an annual, might survive the winter if cut back and heavily mulched. It could get up to 18 inches high in a warm summer, its large ferny leaves providing a tropical or Oriental touch to the garden.” Who writes plant labels?

Then the kicker: “Foliage is malodorous when brushed against or bruised.”

That word "malodorous" seemed deliciously sinister. So I got it. And it grew… and it grew and it grew and voila: This big, monstrous-looking thing towers in my entry garden (topping 10 feet). It has survived all winters, not ever dying back. I figure that is due to our proximity to Lake Washington. Now it blooms annually. Note the big puce plumes atop the celadon leaves. It’s a traffic stopper ... well, it was. Now a number of gardeners have them, so it’s not uncommon. I no longer feel truly cutting edge, yet another concession to old age.

Recently, a Vietnamese immigrant stopped to ask what it was and said it reminded him of home. Nice guy. Cheerful. Mindful of COVID-19, we chatted six feet apart. My next door neighbor, from Brazil, also thinks it looks familiar. Once I watched a bratty neighborhood kid swat it and shout, “This thing stinks!” I chortled diabolically, my back to him as I snipped merrily at my Japanese holly hedge. Later, the same kid yanked on a Berberis bough and got a handful of thorns. Strangely, his manners seem to have improved. 

I used to be the neighborhood go-to guy with plant questions. Now, I suspect, I’m the old curmudgeon who grows nasty things to torture the innocents and make their mothers fret. Whatever. I’ve learned to play the role that life casts me in, never much bothered by controversy. 

And for those who like the looks of these things and appreciate my quirks (horticultural and otherwise), I say, all petulance aside, this is a plant well worth growing. You’ll have to scout around a bit to find it, but it’s out there.

I’ve found Melianthus major to be very undemanding and easy to grow. Give it full sun, ample water during the growing season, and mulch it heavily (at least in the first three years) when leaves fall in autumn. Chances are your plant will be as resilient as mine, and you’ll have it forever. As new foliage emerges in spring, go up the stalk removing the old, winter-battered leaves, much as you would groom Nandina or Mahonia. Watch it grow. If the plant gets too leggy or too tall, cut it back to the ground. New shoots will emerge at the base.

Occasionally I’ve read or heard garden experts tell their followers to cut the blooms off as they emerge. Why? I like the flowers and see no purpose in removing them. When the blossoms fade and seeds begin to form, that’s the time to snip off the flower heads to channel the plant’s energy back into foliage production. I like to bring the bloom spikes indoors. They don’t seem to have the unpleasantly pungent fragrance of the leaves, and they’re fun to look at for a while. I’ve even had them dry nicely and have used them with other dried materials for winter arrangements.

As has been said, “A rose by any other name will smell as sweet.” 

True. It follows, Melianthus or honey bush by any other name will smell as foul. But as is the case with old, curmudgeonly gardeners, even the stinkers often have something quite valuable to offer.