An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

January 8, 2012

Tetrapanax papyrifera 'Steroidal Giant'

A few years ago a friend of mine asked if I wanted a small piece of Tetrapanax papyrifera dug from her gardenI 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.


  1. The Tetrapanax papyrifera "Steroidal Giant" has wonderful shape to it. Have you ever tried massing them? I wonder if they would provide sufficient screening. The fall coloring of the leaves is impressive. BTW, I'm in Virginia Beach visiting my family, at if feels like it's early summer. People in shorts and t-shirts!

  2. Wow, that was some plant. Too bad the frost hit it. I have a potted Duranta that suffered the same fate. I usually bring it in for winter, but the ice hit too soon and I am pretty sure I won't be seeing it again. I would love to have the scale of Tetrapanax papyrifera "Steroidal Giant" in my garden, but that is a BIG potted plant. It needs the space of the garden.

  3. Tetrapanax is one of my favorites, but as you said, I wouldn't turn my back on it either. I allow it to run a little in the shrub border at home, and love the different texture it adds amongst azaleas and some smaller conifers. In fact, today is my day to go out and clean up the mess of tetrapanax last week's freeze left. Like you, I was concerned about its hardiness the first time it froze; now I'm clear this baby's gonna outlive me! Thanks for a great post.

  4. Les, That's a cool plant, beautiful leaves and the fall color was fab. gail

  5. Nice plant Les! Most have no idea of the types of subtropicals that grow easily in our area. On your comment that we are the coolest of the zone 8 regions, I would remark that there are other zone 8 regions in the Deep South that regularly reach colder temps than what we see regularly. While I do understand what you mean by coolest, and that our days don't often warm up as much as the Deep South, our moderate low nighttime temps are what drive our ability to grow so many subtropicals easily, sometimes easier than a Birmiingham Al, southern Atlanta and Columbia SC. Subtropicals are rather a norm here than an exception.

  6. That was me in the previous comment Les. Goofed on signing..

  7. I've admired this plant (not the Steroidal Giant version) in Oxford, Miss., where I'm visiting now. I believe Oxford is in zone 6/7, so I'm wondering whether it might not survive in Brooklyn, ostensibly zone 7, but I think an iffy urban zone 7. I think I might give it a try. Love the plant. Your giant is admirable.

  8. It has scared me ever since I heard it could send out underground runners and pop up 30 feet away from the mother plant but very cool plant nonetheless.

  9. I greatly enjoyed finally getting to see your Tetrapanax Les! As you probably remember I'm mildly obsessed with them. Since my oldest/tallest one is in a stock tank I've not yet been able to stand under it like you can. Maybe someday one of the others will reach that hieght (being as I'm all of 5ft4 it's hardly an unachievable goal). That first one went into the tank to keep it's runners corralled. However I've since planted others in the ground and discovered (like you) that they are easy to pull up. I'm sure left alone for several years it could take over, but certainly not a thug here in my PNW zone 8 garden.

  10. Toni - Signature GardensJanuary 08, 2012 1:38 PM

    Wow, that plant certainly makes a statement in a garden! Beautiful fall color shots! I steer clear of anything that has the potential to be invasive if I turn my back on it, so I'll just appreciate it from afar :-)

  11. P.S. Your dogs are so cute :-) Love the singing Loretta!!

  12. I have to say I love the way it just flops when it's time to go (and loved that fall color combo). Creepily warm here with a Hellebore blooming.

  13. This is the coolest! I remember when you posted on it before and while traveling in Louisville I visited a special nursery with my daughter. I wish I could remember the name but it was two in one and the son of the owner specialized in tropicals. He was the one who had the tetrapanax amongst other tropicals growing outside in Louisville (Zone 6 I believe) They had a LOT of tetrapanax growing between their greenhouses and even in the greenhouses. It was huge and quite beautiful in the winter. It had spread quite a bit too. It's great it is doing so well for you.

  14. And a fascinating post it is! I'm familiar with rice paper, but never researched its origins. I'll never be able to grow this in my Denver garden, but that vicarious thrill is what garden blogs are all about. Thanks, Les!

  15. I remember it in your garden, though I don't think it was quite that tall then. Love how it grows dollar bills, what a find.

  16. This 'giant' must be a show stopper in your garden. It is enormous!
    And a hearty congratulations on your upcoming fourth year of A Tidewater Gardener. I've enjoyed the journey.
    BTW: That Louisville nursery that Tina mentioned may be Brian's Botanicals.

  17. I knew when I saw the title of your post that you would be introducing me to yet another interesting plant that I would be challenged to grow in Maryland. That definitely looks like a candidate for a 'jungle' garden.

  18. Amazing coloration before the cold claimed it. Mine gets very little supplemental irrigation and seems curtailed by this treatment, tho runners do still pop up, but so far very manageable. Nothing beats it for commanding presence!

  19. Cool! This tale reminds me of Jack in the Beanstalk.

  20. My mom once planted a yucca in her side yard and that turned into a major headache when she decided to get rid of it 18 years later. I suggested explosives but that just earned THE LOOK. I think my brother finally got all of the roots....with a backhoe.

  21. Michael,
    I hope you are having a good time at the beach. Sometimes I think it is the best time to go.

    Sorry about your Duranta. The Tetrapanax will likely come back in spades though.

    I am glad you enjoyed the post. I don't let mine run around and am glad it decided to grow a trunk.

    The fall color is not reliable, but I enjoy it when the stars align.

    I agree with you on the tropicals. Even if they are not hardy, we have such a hot humid summer that they thrive and can make stunning annuals, and if they happen to come back, the more the better.

    It would be worth a shot. If it was planted near a south facing wall and mulched well, it may come back. I was amazed last summer when I saw Camellias in Chelsea, so I know that zones can be stretched in the city.

    It is not too bad and pulls up easily.

    I am sorry you had to wait so long for me to show off my Tetrapanax. I was prompted by the excellent fall color. I would not say it is a thug, but has thuggish tendencies. It's a fine line.

    One gardener's invasive is another's vigorous, and I love the singing Loretta too.

    Yes, when it is time to go, it goes, no lingering around.

    Read down, as someone may have ID'ed the nursery you were looking for.

    No I don't think it will handle Denver's climate, but there are things you can do well that I can't.

    The taxes are hell on it, hardly makes it worthwhile.

    Thank you for the congratulations. I will save the big party for next year.

    You may be able to get away with trying it in MD. You have shown me some Camellias, so I know it can't be but so cold. Just say thick mulch.

    The summer before last was woefully dry here and it lived, it just didn't excel. It does respond to any extra moisture though.

    No magic beans though, just a generous friend.

    The day we closed on this house, I was attacking a yucca before the first stick of furniture had been brought in. It took three years to finally get rid of all of it.


  22. I wasn't familiar with it. It is very interesting! I don't recall seeing it growing anywhere around here.

  23. Marco August 2013
    Have a large garden near Seattle and it has become the favorite plant in my garden. Now have over 14 plants over ten feet tall,

  24. Hello, Love this plant. Does anyone know though how to distinguish between the Tetrapanax papyrifer and the Steroidial Giant?

    1. In my zone 8 climate, 'Steroidal Giant' typically develops a persistent trunk, where the species does not, and in the following spring, new foliage emerges from the tip of the trunk. However, the cold weather this past winter killed mine to the roots. The most obvious difference between the straight species and 'Steroidal Giant' is the size of the leaves, with SG often achieving close to 3' across, where the species is more in the 1' range or less.

  25. Hello all. I don't suppose anybody has a pup of Steroidal Giant that they can send me? I am about to pay $52 for a pup from a nursery and would rather buy one from somebody like Les who has unwanted pups/suckers shooting up around their yard. Please email me at Yes, that's "imstead" and not "instead". Thanks!

    1. I am very sad to say, that after this past winter I have lost my Tetrapanax. I had high hopes at first as a pup appeared at the base of the mother plant, but as the spring and summer progressed it declined. I am going to wait one more summer to see if anything pops up, and if not, I will be looking like you for one.

  26. Hey, did your Tetrapanax make it through? Especially considering this past winter's severity in VA?

    1. No I am afraid it did not make it, but I'm not sure it was the winter that killed it. It could be that the winter weakened it, and it succumbed to something else.