Garrya elliptica (Silk Tassel Bush)
Origins, Use in the Garden
Garrya elliptica, commonly called Silk Tassel or Coast Tassel Bush, was first introduced into cultivation in the U. S. in 1828 from seeds collected by the botanist David Douglas (of Douglas Fir fame). It was named for Nicholas Garry, Secretary of the Hudson’s Bay Co. and was sold in California as early as 1860. It has since been a popular garden plant prized for its catkins, or pendulums, which cascade from dense, green leaves in the dead of winter when little else is in bloom. This substantial, long-lived, evergreen shrub is even attractive when out of bloom. Garrya ellipticas are an excellent choice for a screen, informal hedge or an espalier. It is generally deer resistant. In habitat gardens, the purple fruits of the female plants are attractive to birds.
This evergreen shrub is native to Coast Ranges from southern Oregon to Santa Barbara County, which range in altitude from sea-level to 1200 feet. In the northern part of this range, Garrya elliptica grows in rather barren soil on the seaward side of the redwoods. In Sonoma County, the plant grows best from Santa Rosa west to the ocean. Here it can tolerate full sun as well as the fog, wind and rain, and is not threatened by large changes in temperature. If you live inland, you can try growing the plant in partial shade, provided the temperature does not exceed 100 degrees F. If planted in a protected spot, it is cold-hardy to 12 degrees F. ( USDA Zones 4-9, Sunset 14-24. )
Garrya elliptica is evergreen with a moderate rate of growth from 5 to 10 feet in height and 8 to 10 feet in diameter. In ideal conditions, it can reach as high as 20 feet and may be trained as a tree. The shrub has dense foliage with opposite, elliptical or oval leaves, 1 ½ to 3 inches long and 1 ½ inches wide. The thick, leathery leaves are dark green on the top with grey, woolly hair on the bottom. The margins of the leaves are wavy and may tend to curl.
The shrub is grown mainly for its striking female and male catkins, which appear on separate plants. The flowers are borne in long, silvery-gray catkins, which dangle like white tassels from December through February. The male catkins are longer and thus more dramatic. They can be 3- to 8 inches in length with cuplike blossoms pale yellow to greenish yellow in color. The female catkins are pale green and shorter, reaching only 2-3 ½ inches long. Both sexes must be present for the female plant to bear its grape-like clusters of round berries, which are densely hairy and become velvety smooth with age.
Six species of Garrya elliptica are native to California. The two most popular are the male cultivars ‘James Roof’ and ‘Evie.’ According to Margaret Graham, owner of Mostly Natives Nursery, ‘Evie’ has a denser look than ‘James Roof.’ Being 8 to10 feet around, it has many catkins of creamy white flowers with a maroon tinge, which appear in winter. It can take full sun or part shade and, like most native plants, is drought tolerant. It can withstand some summer watering in inland locations, and like the genus, is salt and wind tolerant.
‘James Roof’ is one of “Northern California Gardening’s” top native shrubs. They describe it as being at its best in winter when its long catkins dangle like white tassels from is dark, leathery, green leaves. Eventually it grows to 10 feet. The plant is V- shaped with multiple, reddish brown stems flaring from the base to 8-feet wide. Sherrie Althouse, owner of California Flora Nursery, also says it is one of their “top notch evergreens” and is their best selling cultivar of Garrya elliptica.
The Silk-Tassel bush may be grown either from seeds or cuttings or by layering. Seeds planted in flats in a sandy loam during late fall or winter require three months of cold stratification for germination. Seedlings grow rapidly and should be planted in individual containers when they are sturdy enough to handle. Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ may be propagated from half-hardened terminal shoots.
Sources: Garrya elliptica can be found in one and five- gallon sizes and/or as seedlings at the following local nurseries specializing in native plants as mentioned above: California Flora in Fulton, Mostly Natives in Tomales, and North Coast Native Nursery in Petaluma. Call or check their websites for availability.
References: “Growing California Native Plants,” Marjorie G. Schmidt; Sunset Garden Book; “ Plants and Landscapes for the Summer Dry Climate of the San Francisco Bay Region,” East Bay Municipal Utility District; “Native Plants for California Gardens,” Lee W. Lenz; “The Pruner’s Bible,” Steve Bradley; “Northern California Gardening,” Katherine Grace Endicott.