The Silk-tassel is a familiar enough shrub often encountered in the Coastal Ranges of California and southwestern Oregon. We have grown the species for many years in the gardens at Joy Creek Nursery. Although it is a worthy evergreen native shrub that makes a fine background plant in the summer I have often thought that its incredible winter bloom gets lost in the dense foliage.
Six years ago, I bought Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’ to go into the native plant border at my home. I was pleased that it grew quickly and created a thick screen between me and the driveway next-door even if its habit was ungainly. Branches curved in a drooping fashion back down to the ground. Others twisted themselves around neighboring branches as if they were seeking a way out of the evergreen tangle. Because much of the growth was lateral and downward, I began to contemplate what I could do to encourage upward growth. I wanted to see the tassels drape the shrub like tinsel on a Christmas tree.
Once the shrub had gotten five feet tall, I began to prune it with an eye toward opening it up. My goal was to take out unattractive twisted branches and branches that descended. Because there were so few truly upward growing branches, I did this task cautiously at first. As the shrub matured, I became bolder. Finally early this winter, even though the tassels had already started to form, I began removing all unwanted branches. When I was done, I had an open, airy Silk-tassel that looked nothing like the dense shrub I was familiar with.
By the beginning of February, the tassels began to extend until they reached their full length of 12 to 13 inches which is the characteristic of ‘James Roof’. These tassels often come in terminal sets of five accompanied by two sets of three additional tassels at the leaf axils immediately behind the terminal. The tightly-scaled tassels are grey green at this point but toward the middle of February the scales loosen to reveal tiny flowers so full of pollen that a slight brush of the hand releases a small cloud. ‘James Roof’ is a male clone and does not develop fruit.
To my delight, my pruning worked. The tassels blew in the breeze and did exactly what I hoped for as you can see in the accompanying pictures. By opening up the shrub, and giving it a sense of transparency, I have come to really appreciate the glory of this native. I have become a true believer.
Some of the brightest colors of the winter garden come from the bark of the shrub Salix (willows) and Cornus (dogwoods). As their colorful leaves fall and the days get colder the bark turns dark red or flaming orange and yellow. Maurice has long wanted to do a comparative study of each variety that we have so we headed out into the garden the other day and took eight samples. The bark color is at its peak in December, but we did this February 2 , so the reds especially seem a little faded. Click on the picture below to see a full size version.
While the picture shows the winter color I thought it might be helpful to include a brief description of each variety along with a link to its description on our website.
Cornus alba ‘Aurea’ has gold foliage and makes a great backdrop for other plants to stand out against.
Salix alba ‘Britzensis’ has similar color to ‘Flame’ but tends to be slightly darker. It has small green leaves.
Cornus alba ‘Argenteo-Marginata’ has some of the reddest bark and a clean cream variegation around edge of a green leaf.
Cornus sericea ‘Hedgerows Gold’ is a featured plant along our patio. It has bright yellow and green variegated foliage and makes a great specimen plant.
Salix ‘Flame’ lives up to its name. It has green foliage during the summer and always a hint of its winter color.
Salix integra ‘Hakuro Nishiki’ is grown primarily for its bright pink shoots which open to mottled cream-and-green variegated leaves. The winter color is strictly a bonus.
Cornus sanguineous ‘Midwinter Fire’ has the brightest winter color of any of them. In the summer it is very plain, but when winter rolls around, it is one of the brightest spots in the garden.
Cornus alba ‘Gouschaltii’ is another red barked dogwood that had faded by the time this picture was taken. It has wonderful pink flushed, gold-ringed green foliage and nice fall color. It is truly a great four season plant.
While summer brings a lush array of fantastic foliage and blooming exuberance, for me winter is about the details. Evergreen structure is important and when you plan any new bed thoughts of winter interest is a great starting point. As I walk through our garden in the winter I find myself amazed by the smallest things.
Polemonium yezoense 'Purple Rain'
New growth on a polemonium caught my eye with its multi-colored resistance to the cold. This is a little bit of life that has withstood the rain and cold and still manages to hang on. As we clean up the garden this stalk will be removed but for a few moments I was able to appreciate it.
Another small player in the scheme of the garden is Cyclamen hederifolium. It is dormant during the summer, blooms in the fall , and has wonderfully bright foliage all through winter and into spring. It is not a plant that you are going to base an entire garden on but it provides something fresh when many other plants are on their way down.
Lamium ‘Ghost’ is not in bloom during the winter and will lose much of its own foliage, but it still can serve a wonderful purpose. Being a shade plant often means the leaves that cast the shade fall and create a brown mat during the winter. The silver crowns of the lamium peak up through the debris and shine their brightest. It is an accent that was probably not planned but a little surprise that can be enjoyed.
Luzula sylvatica 'Aurea'
Sitting next to the lamium in the garden was the Golden greater woodrush which I don’t know if I had ever noticed before. It is a very lush bed in the summer full of golds and silvers. But the humble luzula had somehow escaped my attention until now. The leaves of Luzula sylvatica ‘Aurea’ were undamaged by the heavy early frosts and the color was bright and clean. It seems like some evergreen grasses might still have their foliage but look damaged or worn out. This was definitely not the case.
I recommend that you go take a stroll through your garden, if you are not too snowed in that is, and see what little surprises there are to be found. As you plan out future beds or look to add just one more plant, remember to think about all the small surprises that can be found in winter.