Garrya elliptica

Garrya elliptica – silk tassels

Although we are well past the shortest day, winter will be with us for some time yet. So, lots of time to enjoy the snowdrops. Each day I venture out to see which ones have appeared above ground or have started flowering. Galanthus ‘Fly Fishing’, ‘Godrey Owen’, and ‘Robin Hood’ have all joined the party and the list gets longer by the day. This is a delightful task but it does require me to look down and keep my eyes on the ground. What if, for a change, I look up?

Looking up, what do I see?

A beautiful Garrya elliptica. This is a dark green evergreen shrub growing against a north-facing fence, which, for months, has provided a quiet backdrop to the flamboyant flowers of summer. But now that the trees and shrubs are bare of leaves, and most of the colour has left the garden, this is its time to shine. And shine it does!
I must admit that I have rather taken this plant for granted. In the past I have allowed it to get too big and overshadow the plants growing under it. I have pruned it at the wrong time of year and not appreciated it enough when it has flowered during the grimmest season. Until now.
Once again I realize that looking at a plant in detail brings huge rewards. Now that I have found out more and looked closely at the fascinating flowers I can really enjoy this unusual plant to the full.

First things first

The first thing to know is that Garrya elliptica, and all other Garrya species, are dioecious and bear male and female flowers on separate plants, usually in catkins.
Although it is rare, dioecy (from the Greek di – two and oikia – house) can be found in about 40% of angiosperm families. Out of 261,750 angiosperm species, approximately 15,600 (about 6%) are dioecious. Others that might be familiar are: Hippophae, sea buckthorn; Ilex, holly; Salix, willow; Silene, campion.
It is the male plants of garrya, with longer and more attractive catkins, that we usually grow in gardens.

Garrya elliptica leaves and male catkins

What does Garrya elliptica look like?

It is a dense, upright, evergreen shrub or even a small tree in favourable conditions, which grows to about 4m, sometimes more. The leathery leaves are simple and in opposite pairs, each pair at right angles to the next (decussate). They grow up to about 8cm and are elliptic in shape, hence the name, dark green above and tomentose with densely matted, wavy hairs on the lower surface.  The margins are wavy, but not toothed, an attractive and defining feature of the species, leading to one of its common names – wavyleaf silk tassel.

Garrya elliptica leaf upper surface
Garrya elliptica leaf lower tomentose surface

Now, the flowers

As we have seen male and female flowers of Garrya elliptica grow on separate plants and it is the male plants that we usually grow. The catkins, also called aments, grow in the leaf axils, sometimes singly, more often in groups, and start appearing in November. At first they are short, stiff, and erect, but soon start elongating and become pendent. In the very best forms they can eventually reach 30cm in length.

Let’s take a closer look

What looks at first like one solid tassel soon becomes differentiated into a string of tiny, upside-down cups, formed from two united, decussate bracts, about 7mm wide.  As you can see in the images, they are covered in hairs. As the catkin lengthens, flowers extend and appear below the bracts. The bracts spread and the points turn up, reminding me of a bicorn hat. The flowers develop, eventually revealing their structure of four stamens, arranged between four sepals. The stamens are basifixed and dehisce via longitudinal slits. They produce copious quantities of pollen and I think the general opinion is that they are wind pollinated. The sepals are covered in hairs and are joined together at the tips.

Garrya elliptica male catkin closeup
Garrya elliptica male catkin closeup
Garrya elliptica male catkins
Garrya elliptica male flowers closeup
Garrya elliptica male flower closeup

What about the female flowers?

The female plant isn’t often grown in the UK because the male form is much more decorative. I don’t grow it and so haven’t been able to take photographs. Jackie Sones, who took this image in the wild in California, is happy for me to use it here.

Garry elliptica ripe fruits
Garrya elliptica catkin female flowers

Catkins on female plants are shorter, up to 9cm in length, but have a similar arrangement of bracts. It looks as though the flowers have one style with two branches. The fruit is a berry, about 1cm across, and bunches of them hang like grapes and remain on the plant for some considerable time. They start green and hairy and turn deep red as they dry.

For this image Susan McDougall came to my rescue. You can see more about these two generous photographers at the bottom of the post.

If anyone reading this grows the female form and has more information, do please get in touch.

California, is that where Garrya elliptica comes from and how did it get to Europe?

Yes, it has quite a narrow native range on the Pacific coast from central Oregon to California where it grows from sea level to 900m, typically within 20 miles of the ocean. It has another common name of Coast silk tassel.

It was introduced into Britain in 1828 by the plant hunter, David Douglas who was born near Perth, in Scotland, in 1799. At the age of eleven he began a seven-year apprenticeship to become a gardener. He took full advantage of every opportunity that came his way and by 1820 was working at the Botanic Gardens in Glasgow, where he became a firm friend of William Hooker, Professor of Botany at the university. In 1823, when Hooker was asked to recommend a suitable botanical collector for the Horticultural Society of London, he put forward Douglas’s name. 

Expecting to be going to China, he was somewhat disappointed to be sent to the east coast of North America but his four-month journey, during which he amassed a large collection, was considered a huge success. His next trip, to the wilds of the Pacific North-west, involved a gruelling journey of eight and a half months, via Cape Horn, to the mouth of the Columbia River, and two and a half years dangerous and sometimes life-threatening plant hunting, ending in a 995-mile transcontinental trek to Hudson Bay, from where he left for home. It was on this trip that he found the plant named after him, the Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii, and Garrya elliptica, among many others.

He left for what would be his last expedition in 1829 and after plant hunting on the west coast of America, left for Hawaii where he met an untimely death at the age of 34. He is credited with introducing many hundreds of plants to British gardens.

Where did the name Garrya come from?

John Lindley described and named the plant in Edwards’ botanical register in 1835, after Douglas’s death. Against the name there is an asterisk and, at the bottom of the page, he writes, “Named by Mr. Douglas in compliment to Nicholas Garry, Esq. Secretary of the Hudson’s Bay Company, to whose kindness and assistance he was much indebted during his travels in North-west America.” The document includes a full description of the plant in Latin and a discussion comparing it with plants in different families. It concludes that it is different enough to need a “new natural groupe” and describes Garryaceae, again in Latin. A beautiful coloured drawing by Miss Drake provides some graphical information and, by the wonders of the internet, you can see it all here.

‘James Roof’ –  a cultivar with an interesting story

The cultivar that is usually recommended is the male plant Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof’, because it has much longer catkins, up to 30cm, than the species. It received an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1993. But who was James Roof? He was the first director of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden located in Tilden Park in the hills above Berkeley, California, serving in that role from 1940 until 1974. The plant that bears his name was collected in Prairie Creek State Park in 1940 and is still growing in the garden today.

In an article on the website Bay Nature, Sue Rosenthal writes, ‘Roof was both Jekyll and Hyde: Arguably the most brilliant California native plant horticulturist who ever lived and gardened and a prodigiously talented writer, he was also an independent thinker and operator who had no patience for bureaucracy or democracy.‘ If you grow this plant, are looking forward to growing it, are interested in Californian plants, or are fascinated by the characters behind the plants that we grow, then I urge you to follow these links to find out more – they are worth the read!

Botanic Magic – (
Article by past director Stephen Edwards
Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden | A living museum of California native plants.

Now, an Irish connection

Garrya x issaquahensis

Garrya elliptica and G. fremontii are both native to the western coastal states of the USA, in Washington, Oregon, and California. G. fremontii is similar to G. elliptica but its leaves are not undulate and only have a few long, straight hairs on the underside. It also has glabrous male inflorescence bracts, ovary, and fruits, unlike those in G. elliptica, which are hirsute with long silky hairs. G. elliptica is found mainly along the coast, but occasionally inland, and reaches an altitude of about 900m, whereas G. fremontii is a montane species, rarely descending below 1000m. Although the ranges of the two species overlap in Oregon and northern California, no hybrids have been found in the wild. However, they have been cross-pollinated at least twice in cultivation.

In 1961 seeds were collected from a plant of G. fremontii growing in the garden of Mrs. Page (Pat) Ballard at Issaquah, near Seattle, Washington. (This unusual name is derived from isquowh, a Native American word of uncertain meaning.) Mrs. Ballard did not have a male G. fremontii so the plant must have been pollinated by a male G. elliptica growing nearby. Seeds were sent to Washington University Arboretum, Seattle, and, subsequently, to Malahide Castle, near Dublin, in Ireland. The hybrid seedlings raised in Ireland flowered in 1967. The complicated but fascinating story that then unfolded can be studied in the  University of Washington Arboretum Bulletin Vol. 43 1980. From what I understand, the hybrid was named Garrya x issaquahensis and described in that publication.

Garrya x issaquahensis ‘Pat Ballard’

From the hybrid seedlings raised in Ireland, Lord Talbot de Malahide selected one, a male, and gave it the cultivar name ‘Pat Ballard’. It received an Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1973. The name was published and the plant described in Bean’s Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles, also in 1973.

Unfortunately, the description wasn’t exactly detailed or accurate. From descriptions and images I have seen, it looks as though it’s the colour of the catkins that make it worthy of selection as a cultivar. The bracts are deep red at the base, paler at the apex, and as the flowers extend between the bracts adding to the pale band, the whole inflorescence acquires a striped appearance. As the flowers mature the catkin loses its colour and becomes golden. The inflorescences are not as long as some at about 6cm.

At the end of the article in the University of Washington Arboretum Bulletin, the authors write a conclusion, ‘Garrya x issaquahensis ‘Pat Ballard’ is a lovely plant, well suited to gardens in the western USA and in the British Isles. It is hoped that it will become more widely available in the future, and that this cultivar, uniquely recording in its history a link between Ireland and America, will delight gardeners in both countries.’

Garrya x issaquahensis ‘Glasnevin Wine’

I had seen this cultivar name mentioned in various places but then, purely by chance, came across a document that tells me exactly where it came from.
Dr. E. Charles Nelson, a co-author of the aforementioned article, worked in the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin from 1976 to 1995. He recorded particulars of every garden plant that was raised in Ireland or associated with Irish gardeners or gardens and wrote ‘A Heritage of Beauty‘, an illustrated encyclopaedia of some 3,500 cultivars. The entry for ‘Glasnevin Wine’ reads,
Evergreen shrub, reaching 3m in height; leaves elliptical, dark glossy green above, sparsely hairy underneath; catkins to 10cm long, more distinctly tinted red than those of ‘Pat Ballard’.
Origin: I had a female plant of G. x issaquahensis in my garden at Celbridge, Co. Kildare, which did not produce fruits. So I brought some catkins from ‘Pat Ballard’, then growing in the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, and pollinated the hitherto barren female. Fruits and seed were produced and this is one of the resulting seedlings. The seedlings were grown at the National Botanic Gardens, and were assessed and selected there.’

This plant received the Royal Horticultural’s Award of Garden Merit in 2012.

And finally, how to grow Garrya elliptica, its hybrid and cultivars

Garrya elliptica seems to be easy to cultivate in the UK. The RHS website advises a well-drained soil of any type, in sun or partial shade, and in any aspect. Christopher Brickell writes in ‘Garden Plants‘, ‘Although indifferent to soil types, it needs relatively sharp drainage. It is very long lived in cultivation; plants well over fifty years old are often recorded.’

What about its hardiness? The RHS says that it is hardy throughout most of the British Isles, tolerating temperatures down to -10˚C but anyone who has seen a plant disfigured by browned leaves when it should be looking its best, may wonder about this. Others suggest it is only frost hardy down to -5˚C. Graham Stuart Thomas in his ‘Colour in the Winter Garden‘ writes, somewhat enigmatically, Not altogether defiant of frost, and deserving a sheltered spot.’ I’ve often seen it recommended as a wall shrub, specifically for east or north-facing aspects, yet others suggest its use in the open garden in mild areas of Britain. I garden in the south of the UK and grow Garrya elliptica on a north-facing fence. What I have noticed is that the foliage that is below the top of the fence does not have the brown damage, whereas the long branches, waving about above the fence, are damaged. The lower leaves are new ones growing after a heavy prune last year. Is the damage due to cold and wind, cold and sun, dry soil, sun and wind, or another reason altogether? It could just be that it’s quite normal for this plant. Overall, warmth and shelter would seem to be what it requires.

It is also essential to prune immediately after flowering if you want it to flower. It is often recommended as a hedge so will regrow after cutting. It responds well to cutting hard back, with new shoots, even from old wood.


Find some useful information

In mathematics, an ellipse is a plane curve surrounding two focal points, such that for all points on the curve, the sum of the two distances to the focal points is a constant.

Guest photographers
Jackie Sones shared her image of Garry elliptica, which she took in the wild. She lives and works near the ocean at Bodega Head, California, just north of San Francisco, and takes the most amazing photographs of the wildlife there – not many of plants, though – for her Blog. Do take a look, she’ll transport you to another world.
Susan McDougall shared her image of the fruits of Garrya elliptica taken at Washington Park Arboretum. She has a website, The Trees of North America, here.
Daniel Mosquin took the image of Garrya x issaquahensis ‘Pat Ballard’ in the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden.

Plant Hunters
Many books have been written about the exciting world of plant hunting but I have found this one to be particularly good. The Plant Hunters – Two hundred years of adventure and discovery around the world. by Toby Musgrave, Chris Gardener, and Will Musgrave.

Keep reading

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  1. Susan Cowell

    Another really interesting post and one which will make me take a closer look at the specimen in our garden. This shrub was in the garden when we moved here and I have to confess to thinking it a rather dull and uninteresting shrub in need of a good haircut which I duly gave it. Obviously not at the right time because it took a couple of years before it revived sufficiently to produce spectacular catkins last year. Not so many this year as yet but having read all about it I will go and take another look.

  2. annette crouch-baker

    I live in Palo Alto Ca .My Garryea Elliptica is 12 or 15 and blooming for the first time ever !
    It is gorgeous and exciting .
    Thanks for this most informative story .
    I brought some catkins inside for an arrangement ,they even grow longer after being brought in the house !
    And what a romantic addition to a flower arrangement ,so long and elegant .
    Thank you !

    • Virginia Oakes

      Hi Annette, How wonderful to hear from you all the way from California, where Garrya actually comes from. I wonder if you ever see it in the wild. It is lovely to bring indoors where you can see it up close.

  3. Lindsey Shaw-Miller

    Fascinating. I love the detail. My garrya (male), happily abundant in catkins, against a north-facing wall, will benefit from this increase of knowledge gained from your post. I can see it as I write, and look even more tenderly upon it. I’m signing up!

    • Virginia Oakes

      Hi Lindsey, Thank you for your comments. Mine too has been good this year. I can’t help but wonder at those amazing catkins.


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