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A Gardening Journal

Shredded umbrella plant

syneilesis-aconitifolia-foliage-hand-072013-320
 

Such large and spiky leaves! Some form of giant monkshood or Japanese maple? No, way. Only one plant bears these leaves, a perennial with the evocative name of "shredded umbrella" plant.

 

The lobes are so long and so narrow they could be the remnants of your umbrella after the big storm. Thank goodness the flowers are forgettable: This plant's performance is all about texture and form, not color.

 syneilesis-aconitifolia-foliage-hand-072013-640

 

Such large and spiky leaves! Some form of giant monkshood or Japanese maple? No, way. Only one plant bears these leaves, a perennial with the evocative name of "shredded umbrella" plant.

 

 

The lobes are so long and so narrow they could be the remnants of your umbrella after the big storm. Neighbors with larger foliage are a foolproof contrast. That's Deinanthe caerulea in back; its broad leaves' dense network of veins created a corrugated texture, which helps highlight the glossy surface of the foliage of Syneilesis aconitifolia.  See "Partner plants," below, for other sure-fire foliage combinations.

 

 

 syneilesis-aconitifolia-deinanthe-caerulea-072013-640

 

 

 

The clusters of small flowers are shockingly secondary. These are past their prime but, trust me, their peak is scarcely better. Amazingly, this is all to the good. Their true appeal is their tall wiry stems: Look again at the picture above, with a leafless stem at the center jutting high out of frame.

 

 

 

syneilesis-aconitifolia-flowers-072013-640

 

 

Here's how to grow this surprising, essential perennial:

 

Latin Name

Syneilesis aconitifolia

Common Name

Shredded umbrella plant

Family

Asteraceae, the Aster family.

What kind of plant is it?

Herbaceous perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 8.

Habit

Thick and wowers.

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

A thick colony of stems, with no apparent center, several feet across and nearly two feet tall. The vertical stems that bear the small flowers could extend to four.

Texture

Uniquely feathery. Reminiscent only at first glance of the foliage of ferns, but strikingly different in form, in that there are almost no ferns whose foliage is palmate. With the exception of the antler-shaped fronds of staghorn ferns (the Platycerium genus), and the small but truly palmate fronts of Lygopodium palmatum, the fronds of ferns are pinnate. Further, there are few other plants with palmate leaves of any comparable size that are divided so slenderly. The handsome foliage of Acer japonicum is the only near-sized competition, but is not nearly as laciniated. The foliage of some forms of Acer palmatum can be far more intensely divided, but the leaves are a third the size. The leaves of shredded umbrella plant's namesake, Aconitum, are similar in their degree of division, but are as small as those of the fern-leaved forms of Acer palmatum. By all means, grow Helleborus The only way to have a plant with foliage the texture and size of Syneilesis aconitifolia is to grow it.

Grown for

its foliage: Each slender, wiry stem bears a pair of palmate leaves, one emerging higher than the other, whose many and excitingly narrow lobes extend into a nearly complete circle that can, with ideal conditions of nutrition and water, extend to nearly a foot across.

 

 

its flowers, sort of: Some pictures show the narrow apetalous blossoms as being parchment-white with overtones of pink; some descriptions label them, outright, as gray. The cluster in my picture shows the blooms after they have peaked, but with such modest appeal to begin with, the flowers' aesthetic slide from peak to trough is both low and gentle.

 

 

Fortunately, the blossoms themselves are not the source of this plant's floral appeal. Instead, it's that the modest clusters are held, high above the surf of the colony's foliage, on upward continuations of the stems that bear the pairs of leaves. These vertical extensions are leafless and lengthy and, with only a comparatively small raceme of flowers at each tip, they stay sturdily erect. A large colony can have a dozen stems or more, providing a dash of soaring hair-line energy that wouldn't be out of place in the Arts Nouveaux drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

Flowering season

Mid-Summer: July here in southern New England.

Color combinations

The flowers themselves are forgettable as well as ephemeral; the green of their stems and the marvelous palmate foliage goes with everything.

Plant Partners

The combination of the leaves' size and palmate featheriness is sui generis. Add the eccentrically elongated stems of the flowers, and the subtle excitement of Syneilesis aconitifolia is liable to make nearby flowers seem obvious or juvenile. The cheerful simplicity of hydrangeas, roses, dahlias, or echinaceas would be an embarrassment at best.

 

 

Only floral partners of comparable oddity, rarity, and even weirdness would be up to the challenge of being seen anywhere near Syneilesis, so consider this species the stimulus you need to dive deep into the silo of bizarrely-shaped flowers for mid-Summer. The cat-whisker blooms of Paris polyphylla might still be effective. The nodding, pearl-blue flowers of Deinanthe seem to be (and, actually, are) similar to those of hydrangeas, but Deinanthe is a perennial, not a shrub. Flowers that are hooded spathes—think callas, caladiums, and alocasias—always bring a welcome whiff of questionable morals. In my book, that's always a good thing. The wisteria-like flowers of Aconitum raise the ante even farther, in that they and their entire plant are deadly poison.

 

 

No matter how shocking and inspired any partnering flowers might be, the wider context for Syneilesis still needs to be overwhelmingly one of foliage. Your taste and judgement would be called into question if leaves this singular and sophisticated were forced to play second fiddle to anything, at least by contrast, as inherently garish and obvious as flowers. You'll never go wrong, then, by catering to the cogniscenti's decree that you can go hog wild with foliage size, texture, color, rarity, and diversity as long as you don't lose your nerve and top it all off with flowers. That one patch of impatiens will cancel out the increased credibility of the most luxuriant sweep of Syneilesis

 

 

Which kinds of foliage, and from which species? Because Syneilesis leaves are lacy but palmate, the lacy-but-pinnate foliage of ferns is still a credible contrast. The lacy-but-palmate foliage of Japanese maples would be repetitive; these trees' Latin name is Acer palmatum, remember. But the majority of neighboring foliage should have simple shapes with smooth edges, whose contrast with the "shredded" circles of Syneilesis leaves will be foolproof. Lower partners include any Epimedium or dwarf hosta, plus Trachystemon, Trillium, Deinanthe, Glaucidium, Bergenia; dense and wider-leaved grasses such as Carex pensylvanicum and Hakonechloa; and, in warm months, non-flowering (or Winter-flowering) "cool" begonias such as B. convolvulacea. Taller partners include Disporum flavens (and, for you lucky Zone 7-and-warmer gardeners, D. cantonense) and all the round-leaved forms of Ligularia, plus Farfugium, Arum, big hostas, Darmera, Rodgersia, Astilboides, Leucosceptrum, and, in warmer weather, Calla, Alocasia, Colocasia, and Begonia parviflora. Unless they are dense and, even better, strongly variegated, be wary of most taller grasses, whose foliage will seem as feathery as that of Syneilesis.

Where to use it in your garden

Your garden would need to have an embarassment of riches to site Syneilesis in anywhere but a prominent position. But it's better to have any Syneilesis than none at all, especially if it is growing lustily, so site Syneilesis on the basis of the most advantageous combination of shelter and soil conditions, letting the overall visuals shake out as they may. A stunning colony of Syneilesis automatically makes its location prominent. Wherever you grow Syneilesis, remove any neighbors whose flowers are too simple-minded to deserve its company; see "Plant partners," above.

Culture

Morning sun to dappled all-day sun; full sun only under pluperfect conditions of deep, rich, well-drained soil with never even a hint of dryness.

How to handle it: The Basics.

Plant in Spring or Fall, watering enough to ensure establishment. In Fall or Winter, clear away dead stems any time in advance of emergence of the new in Spring.

 

 

Colonies expand slowly but, through the years, significantly. An expanding colony is a high compliment, let alone an ever-greater visual thrill and ever-stronger validation of your nuanced and wise horticultural showmanship. It's hard to believe that one could have too much Syneilesis, but I grant that such a fate is at least hypothetically possible. Nonetheless, it's telling that there's a near absence of advice on dividing colonies of any size or age, let alone control of their farther expansion. I'd be hard-pressed to imagine volunteering a division of my colony—to anyone—no matter how much prime real estate my Syneilesis had commandeered. Instead, I'd enthuse all the more fervently about nursery sources. That way, what might have looked solely like a fierce protective territoriality for my Syneilesis colony would be overlaid with a gracious sheen of love for any nursery confident enough to stock it. My full-throated support of such artisan establishments would, at least for some, mask what, for others, was my prickly red line: I dig from my own Syneilesis for no one.

How to handle: Another option—or two!

On the ascendant, the flower-bearing stem extensions couldn't be more of a thrill. But then the flowers "open," proving that, alas, there's no there there. And in no time after that, their gray maturity—see my picture, above—only confirms it. Could just the clusters of deceased flowers be clipped off, leaving the extensions intact, and their upward energy undimmed?.  

Quirks and special cases

Despite my carping, it's a blessing the flowers aren't showy. That would only encourage efforts to make them more showy. With foliage this good, it would be a crime—minor, but a crime, nonetheless—to bring to the gardening public a Syneilesis that, finally, after years of breeding, had extra-large flowers with pink petals of an even rosier hue.

Downsides

None.

Variants

I'm not aware of any named forms of Syneilesis aconitifolia. The lobes of the leaves of Syneilesis palmata are, by comparison, broad enough and big enough to make the plant look like a cousin of Rodgersia aesculifolia, or even a true chestnut, such as Aesculus x carnea, whose variegated cultivar is profiled here. They can also be even larger, to twenty inches across instead of the "mere" twelve of S. aconitifoliaThe veins of the leaves of S. palmata 'Kikki' are yellow, and of such an extent and array that, in pattern with the blades' interstitial green portions, the effect is positively crocodilian. It's too weird even for me, normally such an easy mark for daring and even shameless variegation.

 

 

To my eye, character trumps size: The foliage of S. aconitifolia is so much more unusual than that of S. palmata, and yet without veering into the weird-for-weird's-sake world of 'Kikki', that it's the first and, perhaps, only Syneilesis you'll ever need to grow. 

Availability

On-line and, occasionally, at retailers.

Propagation

By seed and by division.

Native habitat

Syneilesis aconitifolia is native to China, Korea, and Japan.

 
 
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