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Plant Profiles: Garrya


Drawing by Rene Eisenbart


Nary a

Silk-tassel bush

Coarse, rounded to spreading evergreen, 6 to 10 feet

Sun to part shade, well-drained soil

Exposed sites with cold whipping winds, which can cause leaf burn

For proven 10 degree Fahrenheit hardiness, get Garrya x issaquahensis (great espaliered up against a wall); also benefits from an evergreen background

Broadleaf Evergreen

Forgive me, but I must get this out of my system.

Garrya, Indiana, Garrya Indiana, not Louisiana, Paris, France, New York or Rome . . .
But GARRya, Indiana, Garrya INdiana, Garrya, IndiANA, My Home Sweet Home!

Thanks. I needed that.

Seen in its glory, Northwest native silk-tassel bush makes me want to break out in song. It's one of those powerful and extremely trendy plants that can both hold its own as a showy ornamental and suggest a strong sense of place (in this case, Portland, not Gary). Certainly we've no shortage of native treasures, whether madrone, Mahonia, or salal, but our Garrya species are more versatile than the peeling-barked tree and more charismatic than the broadleaf ever-green shrubs, combining texture, elegance, and evergreen foliage on startlingly different and easy-to-grow plants.

It's actually pretty astonishing that Garrya elliptica isn't more of a Northwest signature shrub, since its irregular shape is still basically conservative and its maintenance is pretty low. The plant's got ample everyday attributes, including strikingly different gray-washed foliage, with woolly undersides revealed by dramatically undulating leaves. It really doesn't have a bad season, only a less showy one, much like camellias and rhodies do.

But all that's after the fact. The primary reason to grow garrya is to extend the holiday season an extra two months, since the silk tassel bush decked out in its winter finery is easily as joyous as a tinseled tree. Weather depending, the shrub can flower within days of the New Year and outlast all but the most heartfelt resolutions.

Garrya's long, flowering strands resemble tiny teacups stacked upside down, a thumbnail wide and sometimes more than a foot long. These pale catkins hang from the tip of every shoot and sway like strings of beads in a breeze. The effect is dazzling but not ostentatious because the teacups' colors are subdued -- oyster gray with a frill of yellow stamens, for an overall appearance of creamy, celery green.

Flower and foliage color vary depending on species and variety, of which there are several. If your priority is flower length, nothing can touch the G. elliptica cultivars 'Evie' and 'James Roof,' with nearly foot-long catkins. For dark green foliage -- as well as exceptional hardiness -- you'll want the silk-tassel hybrid G. x issaquahensis (G. elliptica x G. fremontii), or its showy selection 'Pat Ballard'.

A word before bringing your garrya home: Make sure it's a guy (or that you've bought one of each). The female has nice fruits but pales in plumage. Named cultivars are dependable, but if you're after the straight species, it's hard to know (tell me about it). Your best bet is to shop in winter, while the plants are still in bloom.

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    Plant Profiles are excerpted from Plant This! by Ketzel Levine


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