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Plant Profiles: Edgeworthia


Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


Wedge worthy ya

Paper bush, knot plant

Rounded, multi-stemmed, late-winter-blooming deciduous shrub, 3 to 6 feet

Sun, supplemental summer water, well-drained soil

Single-digit temperatures (flowers can be damaged in low teens); shade, overwatering

Shape is a great attribute; select for open-armed simplicity or single trunk with evenly rounded head

Deciduous Shrub

Wintertime, and the living's not easy. Plants are frozen, and tempers are high. Hebe's toast, and the rosemary's cringing. If this is called temperate, why do I want to cry?

Let's take the long view. Yesterday, the air was redolent of winter honeysuckle (Lonicera standishii) and wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox). Today, those same flowers are encased in ice. But tomorrow, a sun break will awaken the dormant buds of Edgeworthia, and nature will toss us a few more fragrant crumbs.

Edgeworthia's common name, paper bush, comes from its utilitarian bark, which is processed into a high-grade paper product in Japan and China. It was also planted in abundance as a resource crop in southern China, where it's evidently still common in hedgerows. The bark is flaky and cinnamon-colored in youth, and the branches are incredibly bendable, which explains its other names, knot plant.

Known to appear as early as January, though more typically in February, the flowers of the paper bush emerge from silky-white button buds that begin to fatten up in fall. Like those of its close kin Daphne, its blossoms are clustered; they nod like bite-size sunflowers off the end of the plant's stout stems. Lemon yellow upon opening, they soften to a creamy custard, which some say also describes their fragrance: warm, rich, lightly sweet, and particularly soothing at this often trying time of year.

The plant's native habitat is the woodland edge, often streamside, which tells you something about its culture. We're not talking drought resistance; on the contrary, edgeworthia needs evenly moist soil through summer. Because it grows vigorously from the base, it quickly makes a multi-stemmed shrub, but it's far more elegant trained into domed, single-trunked, three-to-five-foot tree.

While researching edgeworthia, I stumbled into a small botanical hornet's nest. Are the species E. papyrifera and E. chrysantha in fact one and the same? (You're kidding; you haven't been able to sleep, either?) Well, despite dissension in the ranks, it looks entirely likely. A true second species, however, E. gardneri, is said to be distinguished from the identical twins by bolder foliage, some leaves being five to seven inches long. Incidentally, a completely misnamed cultivar of paper bush should be showing up in the near future. E. chrysantha 'Rubra' is not remotely red. Instead, it's a deliciously bright orange that hits just the right temperature if you like your winter colors warm as (versus burnt as) toast.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


    Copyright © 2003 National Public Radio, Washington, D.C.