A few years ago a friend of mine asked if I wanted a small piece of Tetrapanax papyrifera dug from her garden. I was familiar with the plant from the display gardens at work, and I was also familiar with how much real estate it demanded and how weedy it could become. Just as I was about to say "no thank you", she mentioned that this one was one called 'Steroidal Giant'. Intrigued I asked what made it different, and she told me that the plant would get at least 10' tall and the leaves would get 3' across. I promptly accepted, and then (like so many other plant decisions I have made) I would just have to figure out where the hell I would plant it.
The young plant ended up being put in the shade of a large Willow Oak in the back garden, but it did get a blast of morning sun. Because of the Oak, the bed tends to be on the dry side, so I gave the new plant plenty of water that summer. It grew very well and died to the ground in the fall. Late the next spring it came back to life with the new shoot emerging from the ground covered in brown felt, looking like a bizarre claw-like structure. It quickly shot up, and by the end of the summer a substantial trunk had developed. That winter the foliage died back, and I thought for sure the trunk would die too. However, the next spring, several of the "claws" emerged from the top and grew to an impressively substantial size by early summer, and I had Tetrapanax coming up all over the place. By fall the plant was easily 10' tall, and by mid-November a bloom stalk emerged.
Last winter (2010/2011) all of my plants, including the Tetrapanax were flash-frozen by the severe and early cold weather we had in December.
Like many parts of the country, we have had a mild winter so far this year, and the Tetrapanax was able to mellow and take on some rich colors. The mid-ribs turned pink, the upper leaves were burgundy and from underneath they were amber. The pictures below were taken last Sunday on New Year's Day.
By today, after a low in the 20's this week, all was brown and the leaves are falling off.
Tetrapanax papyrifera is native to Taiwan and southern mainland China, where it has been used for close to 2000 years in traditional medicine and to make a fine paper from the pith. This paper is very white and readily absorbs liquids, so inks and dyes take to it well. One of its common names is Rice Paper Plant, but it should not to be confused with either rice or Edgeworthia, which also goes by that name. The paper made from this plant was also used to make fairly realistic artificial flowers and to staunch bleeding. In the 1800's, an export trade arose in China of watercolors painted on this paper, with the subjects showing Chinese flora and fauna or scenes of everyday life.
Despite its exotic origins, Tetrapanax papyrifera grows pretty easily here in the coolest part of zone 8, further south it is a deciduous shrub, and further inland to zone 7 it is a root hardy perennial. Though it is listed as preferring full sun to partial shade, mine has done well in mostly shade, and after the first season has needed no extra summer moisture. It spreads by underground stems and many come up every summer. They are easy to pull up, and I pot a few to give away and the rest are composted, but I wouldn't turn my back on any strays.
If you would like to learn more about this plant, the paper made from it and the paintings, Harvard University has an interesting page on the topic, which is where I got some of the information in this post.
A Tidewater Gardener will mark its fourth anniversary later in the month. Several times since I started this gardening blog, I have had to occasionally remind myself to actually talk about gardening and garden plants (especially since I am so easily distracted). So this post was an effort to bring the topic back home.