A Gardening Journal

The Best Season Ever: Umbrella Leaf

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By mid-Summer, Spring's eager growth can seem like hubris at best. By July, the first weeks of drought and dog-day heat will have scorched those fragile leaves and flowers. Those plants will, wisely, have packed it in until next Spring. But what if, just now and then, you could extend moist and sheltering conditions right through to Fall? Here's one perennial that's worth the work: It peaks in Spring—but then again in late Summer. 

 

The large jagged-edge leaves of Diphylleia sinensis help this perennial form a mound up to three feet tall and wide.

 

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And above the leaves, small heads of pure white flowers dance.

 

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My colony is young, and I'm providing all the best conditions for its continued increase: Deep soil, unflagging water, shelter from wind, and dappled-to-full shade, especially from mid-day through the afternoon. Older and larger colonies produce larger heads of flowers—I've seen pictures of clusters of up to two dozen. 

 

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True, you may well damn these diminutive blooms with faint praise: Charming, aren't they? But if you keep your colony happy through the season, year after year, those demure flowers at the ends of otherwise unremarkable green stalks change into their party clothes. The flowers mature to blue berries, and the stalks change color from green to hot pink. If this plant's Spring show is one of eagerness and purity, its Fall display is shameless to the point of comedy. But only if your colony thrives for the long term.  See "Where to use it," "Culture," and both "How to handle it" boxes, below, for tips for success.

 

There are three species of Diphylleia, and they are similar overall and, probably, confused in the trade. The exciting shiny bronze of the emerging foliage is, supposedly, the hallmark of the Chinese species, Diphylleia sinensis, so that's what I may well have.  I purchased it as the American form, Diphylleia cymosa, whose leaves are usually described as emerging green.

 

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Here's how to grow this eccentric, exciting perennial:

 

Latin Name

Diphylleia sinensis

Common Name

Umbrella leaf

Family

Berberidaceae, the barberry family.

What kind of plant is it?

Rhizomatous herbaceous perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 8. 

Habit

Clumping, not spreading, with slender leaf-bearing stems emerging from rhizomes that remain buried beneath the soil.   

Rate of Growth

Vigor depends on conditions and culture. Colonies bulk up quickly when growing in rich soil that also provides plenty of water.

Size in ten years

A mounding colony one to three feet tall and wide. 

Texture

Dense, with large foliage held mostly at the same height and, so, overlapping to form a reasonably effective groundcover. The flower clusters are held jauntily above the foliage.

Grown for

its foliage: "Umbrella" leaf, indeed: The stalk for each leaf attaches at the underside of the center of a large round leaf; the term for this arrangement is peltate. Two of the indentations between lobes are so deep they almost divide the leaf into near-equal halves. The genus name, Diphylleia, means two-leaved. This is sometimes thought to refer to the presence on the same stem of two individual leaves, one above the other, not to the prominent near-division of each leaf into two halves by this pair of opposite indentations. (In fact, many stems have just one leaf, and others have a many as four.) As in the picture above, young foliage of Diphylleia sinensis is conspicuously bronze and shiny; mature leaves are mid-green. The leaves of lotus"shredded" umbrella plant, and darmera are also peltate. (The Latin name for darmera is, in fact, Peltiphyllum peltatum, which means, literally and redundantly, "peltate-leaf that is peltate.") 

 

its flowers: Charming but distinctly secondary. You would always plant Diphylleia specifically for its foliage; you would never plant it just for its flowers. Pure white and with six petals, the flowers cluster at the tip of a slender green stem that protrudes several inches above the foliage. Only leaf-bearing stems that have more than one leaf also produce a flowering stem; it emerges from the base of the petiole of the second leaf up from the bottom. The flowering stem finds its way above the plant's leafy canopy by heading through the deeper of the pair of indentations that separate the two halves of each leaf. There can be around two dozen flowers in a cluster, or (as in my young colony, above) just a few. If pollination is successful and the vigor of the colony is maintained through the season, the flowers mature to small but showy blue fruits, while the stems that attach each fruit to the flowering stem—the pedicels—change to exciting hot pink.

Flowering season

Mid-Spring into Summer.

Color combinations

The white flowers, bronze young foliage, and green mature foliage go with just about anything. If you are particularly fastidious, you could site near other plants whose Spring foliage or flowers are apricot, orange, bronze, or burgundy. Later in Summer, the blue fruits at the tips of their cerise pedicels are another opportunity for nuanced companion plants. See "Plant partners," below. 

Plant partners

Umbrella leaf's need for shade-garden conditions limits its partners to those that also enjoy shelter and plenty of moisture, Nonetheless, this perennial's coloring, scale, and texture make it exceptionally versatile. The foliage is large, but also jagged, so looks great with other large-leaved plants such as Hosta, Darmera, Rodgersia, Farfugium, and Ligularia. The foliage size also makes Diphylleia a natural companion to anything with foliage that is feathery (such as ferns, astilbe, Syneilesis, and cut-leaved forms of Japanese maple) or grassy (such as Hakonechloa, Carex, Fargesia). Shade-tolerant conifers (Taxus, Cephalotaxus) and almost any broadleaves are also possibilities.  

 

Especially if planted to the south or west, taller forms of any of these companions might also provide the shelter from sun and wind that Diphylleia requires.  

 

In the course of supplying plenty of partners whose textures are contrasting, and whose requirements for shelter and moisture are similar, you might also be able to nod to the two eccentric notes of color that Diphylleia can provide besides its neutral white flowers and green-in-Summer foilage. In Spring, its bronze foliage would contrast with plants whose Spring foliage is exceptionally pale. If you're gardening in the warmer reaches of Zone 7, the white "pencils" of the young foliage of 'Snow Peaks' aspidistra would be striking. Hardier options include Acorus gramineus 'Ogon'. Epimedium flowers can be had in almost any shade—including bronze and apricot. Would Warley barrenwort be in flower when Diphylleia foliage is just appearing?

 

Later in Summer, the blue fruits and their hot-pink pedicels suggest pink companions. Would the flowers of Astilbe chinensis be late enough? 

Where to use it in your garden

Diphylleia doesn't like dry soil and, if sufficient soil moisture can't be maintained otherwise, will accept full shade from mid-day on, or dappled shade all day. It is most easy to establish a vigorous colony, then, when siting in damp woodland, or alongside a stream or pond. Only attempt siting in full sun if your Summer weather tends to be cool, cloudy, and humid; and your soil conditions ensure unflaggingly generous moisture all year round. Unless you're gardening in, say, maritime Canada, northern Ireland, or Scotland, confine Diphylleia to your shade garden. 

 

The small-scale flowers, followed by the surprisingly vivid coloring of their fruits and late-season pedicels, suggest siting where close-range viewing is clearly intended: right at the front of a bed, so that viewers have plenty of room to stoop or even kneel easily.

 

The large foliage isn't very thick, and can rip if wind jostles the leaves too strongly. Site in locations with enough surrounding and overhead plants that breezes are well-buffered. Avoid plants that are stiff, let alone sharp-edged or spiny; leaves of Diphylleia growing near Mahonia bealei would soon become speared and torn.

Culture

Provide nutrient-rich and moisture-retentive soil, and all the water you can. Although it doesn't require it, Diphylleia can thrive in soil that remains saturated, as would be the case in a bog, or by fresh water.

How to handle it: The Basics.

Plant in Spring or Fall. Unless your climate is wet (or your enthusiasm for watering is unbounded); it's easier to establish Diphylleia by planting in the Fall, when cooler temperatures and, usually, prolonged wet spells in Winter ensure that the plant's roots can colonize surrounding soil before the warmth of the following Spring stimulates growth of the large, thin leaves that require a lot of readily-available water if they are not to droop or scorch. 

 

As long as soil moisture is sufficient and the prevailing sun and breezes are not too strong, the foliage remains attractive all season. Allow it and the flower stalks to remain in place, especially as the flowers can mature to the remarkable blue fruits with hot-pink pedicels. Any time after hard frost in Fall and before new foliage is likely to emerge in Spring, remove spent foliage. If you don't mind the bit of mess, and can access the colony readily-enough during sloppy cold weather, wait to remove the leaves until late Winter, by which time they will have already detached from the rhizomes.

 

Colonies thicken and enlarge, but don't spread outward with any haste. If you'd like a swathe of Diphylleia, you'll need to plant en masse. Spacing eighteen to twenty-four inches apart is close enough: Diphylleia is never inexpensive and, as long as you provide congenial conditions, the large leaves of adjacent clumps should be touching by the second or third Spring after planting.  

 

Transplant or divide in Fall or Spring; as with de novo planting, Fall is usually the more helpful season, in that some or even most of the necessary moisture can be maintained just by the ever-cooler temperatures. 

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

You can help retain nearby soil moisture by planting Diphylleia in a large hole—say, the size of a bushel basket—that you line with plastic. Using a nail, poke just one drainage hole in the bottom, then fill up with rich soil. Don't overfill; it's a help if the soil level is a bit lower than the surrounding bed, so that overflow water drains into the Diphylleia, not away from it. During drought, you'll need to water the colony occasionally. From late July through later September, I check my colony weekly, and usually decide to gently soak it by slowly pouring on a bucket of water.

Quirks and special cases

None.

Downsides

If water is insufficient, the foliage developes a muted reddish-tan hue or, simply, scorches outright. Diphylleia would be difficult in low-humidity climates, regardless of how much moisture might be available to its roots.     

Variants

To my knowledge, there are no cultivars or variants of Diphylleia sinensis. D. grayi is similar, and native to Japan. D. cymosa is native to the Appalachian mountains of southeast United States; reportedly, its young foliage is less likely to be bronze, and more likely to be about the same color green as its mature foliage. Unless you garden for comprehensiveness regardless of a sense of repetition, it's only necessary to grow one of these species.

 

At first glance, Diphylleia seems similar in size, habitat, and large foliage to another plant that is, in fact, a fellow member of the Berberidaceae: Mayapple, Podophyllum peltatum. But differences abound: Mayapple can spread aggressively; its leaf lobes are founded, not pointed; and its much-larger flowers and fruits are hidden beneath its foliage.

Availability

Online, as well as at specialty or "destination" retailers.

Propagation

By division in Spring. Sow seed in a coldframe. 

Native habitat

Diphylleia sinensis is native to China.

 
 
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