I had always thought that Garrya elliptica, usually at its most spectacular at this time of year, was an Australian plant. I have no idea why … In fact, it comes from a quite restricted strip of coastal western America, from California to southern Oregon; but, in spite of living on those relatively balmy shores, where even in winter the temperature rarely drops below freezing, it has the advantage of being hardy down to about 10 degrees C.
The taxonomic hierarchy is: Asterids > Garryales > Garryaceae > Garrya. The Garryaceae include garryas and also aucubas, which on the face of it have very little in common with each other, especially as the latter come from the Far East, with a spread from the Himalayas to China, Korea and Japan: the genus was named by Thunberg, apparently from the Japanese name, Aoikiba.
The garrya (of which the vernacular names include Coast silk tassel, Silk tassel bush or Quinine bush and Wavyleaf silk tassel) was named by the dauntless David Douglas during his exploration of the Pacific coast of northern America.
The taxonomic definition was published by John Lindley in Edwards’s Botanical Register in 1835 (extracts above), with an explanation of why the name of Nicholas Garry should be commemorated – this was of course after Douglas’s tragic death (or was it murder?).
The picture in the Botanical Register is by Sarah Ann Drake (1803–57), who went to school with Lindley’s sister Anne, trained as a painter in Paris, and later entered Lindley’s home as a governess. She provided over 1,000 images for the Botanical Register, and also contributed to Ladies’ Botany, Nathaniel Wallich’s work on Asian plants, and the massive Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala by James Bateman. The western Australian genus Drakaea (hammer orchids) was named in her honour by Lindley, and she deserves, as they say, to be more widely known.
With its ‘winter interest’, Garrya elliptica rapidly became a popular plant in the UK for shrubberies; it can also be trained against a wall.
The wind-pollinated plants are dioecious, i.e. either male or female (like hollies and gingkos), and the males tend to be preferred for gardens, as their catkins are longer and more spectacular.
This is of course the reason that one rarely sees the greyish-to-black berries – the vast majority of cultivated hybrids are male.
Among the most popular are ‘James Roof’ (which holds the RHS AGM), of which the tassels are up to 30 cm long, and ‘Evie’ (also a male, despite the name: cf. the holly ‘Silver Queen’, which is male and berryless).
Other garryas have more spectacular berries, but less spectacular catkins, so swings and roundabouts …
Some garryas are claimed to be medicinally useful for stomach and other cramps, as also as a relief for asthma – but depending on the dose, it can also be an abortifacient. (As always, don’t try at home.) And you can use the berries (assuming you ever get any) to make a grey-to-black dye.
So forget this limited usefulness and concentrate on the lovely silky tassels – unless of course you have the misfortune to suffer from tree-pollen hay fever …
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