A Gardening Journal

Sycamore-leaved False Nettle

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Who doesn't need a perennial that looks as if it's coming right over to greet you?  Here's the first of the Boehmeria tribe you should sample: B. platanifolia—meaning with leaves that are, supposedly, like those of Platanus, the sycamore trees.  In reality, the leaves are more like those ofmaples, which would suggest the name of B. acerifolia instead.  Sycamore leaves sure don't look anything like the leaves of this "sycamore-leaf" nettle.  Maybe the sycamores are more eccentric in this plant's native China. 

 

Whatever you call it, you should grow it.  This easy perennial's large jagged-edge leaves have so much visual energy, and float upward in pairs, barely tethered to earth on the thin green stems, that the plant always seems to be rising up and coming over to say "Hi there!  Thanks for bringing me into your life."

 

The young leaves are particularly good at the arms-wide-open look, each with its glowing-green interior surrounded by darker-green "jags."

 

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Talk about being glad to meet you. 

 

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Mature leaves are as large as my hand.  Yes, they get that tiny-dots-of-brown ailment, but I'm always too polite to comment on it in the plant's presence.  

 

There are flowers later in the Summer, like tassels or catkins rather than—heaven forefend—anything with actual petals.  Petals?  They would be so normal, which this plant lets your late-Summer daisies and dahlias handle. 

 

You don't need more petals in your garden, anyway; you need more plants whose message is "Hi, and thanks for planting me."  And, by the way, more plants that will grow under trees.  Try that with a dahlia.

 

 

Here's how to grow this glad-to-meet-you beauty:

 

Latin Name

Boehmeria platanifolia

Common Name

Sycamore-leaf False Nettle, which only makes sense if your sycamores have leaves that are a lot weirder than mine.  It is a nettle, but it's "false" in that the leaves don't have any sting.

Family

Urticaceae, the Nettle family.

What kind of plant is it?

Herbaceous perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 8

Habit

Upright and spreading, almost full to the ground when mature.  Self-supporting.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

A clump three to four feet tall and four to five feet wide.

Texture

Dramatic, energetic, "forward" and prominent.

Grown for

the large, round, and jaggedly-toothy foliage in contrastingly orderly pairs that are very well separated up the stems, each pair aligned at 90 degrees to the ones above and below it. 

 

its ability to perform in fairly dense shade, even when it has been created by tree canopies and is, hence, full of the tree roots and is prone to dryness.

 

its flexibility, performing equally well as a specimen or as a massed groundcover.

Flowering season

High Summer: August in Rhode Island.  The flowers are long narrow, nodding beige tassels, curious rather than pretty.  They look great drooping atop the foliage.

Culture

Almost any soil that isn't lean or sandy.  Shade to half sun, more sun if the soil is rich and there's plenty of water.  In my experience, Boehmeria is tolerant of Winter wet and questionable drainage. 

How to handle it

Boehmeria combines exotic beauty with tough functionality, making it one of my favorite hard-working garden stalwarts.  The foliage is dense enough, and the clumps wide-spreading enough, for the plant to work well as a large-scale groundcover when planted in groups.  In that case, you can space the plants three feet apart and—provided they're growing in good soil, part sun, and with enough water—they'll fill in by the third Summer.

 

Boehmeria is also unusual enough and beautiful enough to merit planting as a choice specimen.  It is a sensational partner to variegated grasses, either smaller and at its feet or larger and to its back as well as to the West, helping to provide some of the shade that Boehmeria appreciatesThe foliage is solid-green when mature, so welcomes any neighbors that can bring in contrasting colors, in foliage or flower or both.  The beige flower tassels mean that Boehmeria mixes comfortably with all color schemes, regardless if they celebrate red, pink, white, blue, or yellow.

 

This is a hardy perennial, so you can cut dead stems to the ground in the Fall, when there's usually less crush of work to get done than in the Spring.

 

I haven't noticed self-seeding, which in moderation would, frankly, be great. 

Downsides

None.

Variants

There are other garden-worthy forms of Boehmeria to covet.  Some cultivars of B. nipononivea have brilliantly-variegated leaves: 'Kogane Mushi' has yellow leaves that acquire green flecks when mature; it can get six feet tall.  The leaves of 'Nichirin' are strongly edged in white, similar to (but larger than) those of Caryopteris incana 'Snow Fairy'.  B. nivea is Zone 7 at best, but has sandpapery fishtail-shaped leaves.  My goal is to grow them all. 

Availability

On-line and at specialty retailers.

Propagation

Division in Fall or Spring, as well as by seed.

Native habitat

China.

 
 
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