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or just about any other place where concrete consumes

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Plant Profiles

Trunk and Branches of Japanese Tree Angelica

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The warm-weather foliage of tree angelicas is so extraordinary and voluptuous.  (You'll see next August!)  Only in Fall and Winter is the prehistoric appeal of the trunk is in full reveal.  By way of two caliper-like ridges, each branch keeps a particularly tight hold on the trunk.

 

Tree angelicas need some encouragement to branch out—see "How to handle it" below—but they're eager and prolific after you've nudged them along. 

 

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The more they branch, the bigger the bush's overall canopy of foliage becomes—and, therefore, the thicker and thicker the bizarre trunk grows, to keep the supply of water and nutrients flowing upward to that ever-increasing top growth.

 

Bushier aralias, then, are the leafiest in the Summer as well as the most arresting—bare-kneed and elephantine—in Winter.

 

 

Here's how to grow this adaptable and foolproof shrub:

Latin Name

Aralia elata 'Silver Umbrellas'

Common Name

Variegated Japanese Tree Angelica

Family

Araliaceae, the Aralia family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous shrub or small tree.

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 9.

Habit

Single-trunked.  Unbranched as a youngster, with only a few of the immense frond-like leaves at the top.  In leaf, young plants look like palm trees.  Older shrubs branch out, and are usually as wide as tall.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

Twelve feet tall and wide.

Texture

In leaf, full and frondy, with the immense doubly- or even triply-pinnate leaves overlapping casually.  In August, when many of the stems are topped by gigantic clusters of tiny white flowers, it's as if the entire bush is frothing.

Grown for

its foliage:  Huge pinnate leaves, to four or even five feet long and three feet wide, with (seemingly) hundreds of leaflets heavily but irregularly edged and sectored in white.  The showiest hardy variegated shrub.  No Fall color.

 

its stems: Pale grey bark on very fast-growing stems.  The shrub is sparsely-branched even when pinched (see "How to handle it" below), so the coarse branching is quite a contrast to the full and even dense look when the shrub is in leaf.

 

its trunk: Eventually thick—to about eight inches in diameter—with a roundness and with seeming rolls of skin (actually caliper-like ridges of the attached branches) that create a powerful resemblance to an elephant leg.

 

its flowers: in high Summer, immense hemispherical heads of tiny white flowers, thousands of them, appear at the tips of many of the branches.  The heads can be nearly three feet across, and are eagerly patronized by, it seems, any and every pollinator from bees and wasps to flies and who-knows-what.  The bush is a regular UN of pollinators, and with hundreds of insects feeding at once, is the noisiest in my Summer garden.  The flowers turn a bit pink as they age.

Flowering season

August:  The flowers are very long-lasting.

Color combinations

'Silver Umbrellas' foliage brings white and green into the garden.  The flowers start out white, too.  So far, then, the plant will go with anything.  The small amount of pink that older flowers develop, though, does cause me slight regret that I planted both of my 'Silver Umbrellas' in my red gardens.  Until then, the combination of that garden's red and orange flowers with the white foliage and young white flowers of the 'Silver Umbrellas' is terrific. 

Partner plants

Although Aralia leaves are huge by any measure, they're made up of comparatively small leaflets, so partnering with huge but undivided foliage is still a contrast not a repetition.  The bush can be quite wide-spreading—just one additional leaf could cast an additional square yards of dappled shade—so partner plants are best when shade-tolerant.  As usual when partnering with a plant with strong variegation, solid colors work well.  Dark green, burgundy, and yellow foliage, anyone?  As long as it doesn't get shaded, purple smoke bush, Cotinus 'Velvet Cloak' would be exciting.  As for green, I've underplanted one side of both of my aralias with sycamore-leaf false nettle.  And for yellow, there's always 'Sum and Substance' hostas.

 

With such huge leaves, it's a surprise to realize that even the "small" leaflets are actually two or three inches long.  So Aralia works just as well with ferns.  I'm underplanting with Dryopteris erythrosora 'Brilliance', whose copper-orange new foliage grants it entry into the red (and orange) gardens.     

 

The bush's open habit suggest opportunities for something contrasting to scramble up into it.  I'm experimenting with 'Red Cascade' rose as well as giant potato creeper.  The flowers of both have a small amount of white that attentively picks up the white of the Aralia foliage. 

 

The "prehistoric" trunk and branching brings eccentric Winter interest, so another option is to underplant with low and shade-tolerant evergreens to highlight the light bark and the peculiar elephant-leg look.  Prostrate or 'Duke Gardens' plum yews?  See "Variants" in the Chinese plum yew article.   

Where to use it in your garden

In warm weather, the enormous and bright foliage of 'Silver Umbrellas'

makes it the star of any area, so plant it where you want a focus.  The plants are comfortable about being shaped, so you can use them in multiples, say, to flank a pathway, where you'd want one bush to be roughly the same size as the other.  Or if you're creating such a large landscape that a solo aralia just isn't enough of a splash, plant three in a group.  Six or even eight feet apart is plenty close enough. 

Culture

Full sun or part shade, in almost any soil as long as it provides reasonable Winter drainage.  'Silver Umbrellas' is always an expensive plant, so don't plant it carelessly.

How to handle it: The Basics

Although there are specimen-size plants available occasionally, you'll normally be able to purchase only smaller ones, where the graft—and 'Silver Umbrellas' is always grafted—might not be bigger than your thumb.  Orient the young plant in its new planting hole (by adjusting the root ball gently, not by pulling or pushing on the stem, with its valuable and potentially fragile graft of 'Silver Umbrellas' at the top!) so the grafted portion is vertical.  Water well, and be attentive that the new planting doesn't have to scrounge for water during a drought its first year.  Shrubs are self-reliant, and surprisingly so, thereafter.  

 

Let the young shrub grow a year or two; be alert for the inevitable suckers (see "Downsides" below).  After the stem is two to four feet tall, it will become clear that the bush needs a bit of help to branch out.  Bushes growing on their own can get six or even eight feet tall and still be unbranched.  In Spring of the third season after planting, as the foliage bud at the top of the stem is starting to swell, help the bush see how exciting it can be to have plenty of branches:  Pay it a visit while also holding your hand pruners, and without hesitating, cut off the top foot or even two of the stem.  Don't worry about where you cut, just do it.  You'll be aghast and the bush will look hopelessly decapitated.  This is normal.  Soon many of the dormant side buds on the stem—and there are many of them—will swell, and your broom-stick bush will have a half dozen side branches or more. 

 

This one "mega-pinch" is normally enough to inspire the bush to become as bushy as needed, but you can pinch the tips of side branches next Spring if you want to take things even further.

 

Established bushes grow very fast—perhaps too fast as well as too far—and if you find that you hadn't really understood just how big a bush that's twelve feet by twelve feet by twelve feet is, you can prune severely every couple of Springs to keep growth to a comparatively demure eight feet by eight feet by eight feet.  As with your original "mega-pinch," stems branch out quickly and often after being cut; new growth could be two to four feet long in a season.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

The foliage is so large, and the bush can be so fast-growing, that by July plants that were only nearby, not adjacent, can all of a sudden be cast into shade by that one additional leaf.  Not a problem.  With your hand pruners, cut off the last foot or two—or three—of the leaf stem.  Or cut off the entire leaf.  The first few years after planting, you're so grateful for and excited about the amazing foliage that each individual leaf is a blessing.  When the bush is mature, though, you'll be amazed at how casually you'll reach into the canopy, almost any time throughout the growing season, and cut off a portion of a leaf, an entire leaf, or even a whole branch. 

Quirks or special cases

You could not encourage side-branching by refraining from the "mega-pinch" above, and let the bush grow unpinched its entire life-time.  Then it would become a small and open-canopied tree of about twelve feet tall.  I didn't do this with my own 'Silver Umbrellas', and hardly ever do it at client projects, either, because the foliage and flower clusters would then be completely out of range if you didn't want to get out the stepladder.  But the look of a "tree" angelica that really is as much of a tree as it can be is every bit as exotic, and the unpinched bush—I mean tree—is just as happy.

Downsides

'Silver Umbrellas' doesn't self-seed for me, but like all the grafted Aralia cultivars—and they are always grafted, alas—the A. elata rootstock is an enthusiastic suckerer.  Growth directly from the root stock or even the roots isso spiny that "handling" it is always a bit of a misnomer.  Only by wearing gloves, or by using pruners as tongs, can any above-ground portion of the suckers be "handled."

 

Shoots can arise almost anywhere along the far-ranging roots.  Remove them regularly but, so to speak, calmly.  If you yank them up (wearing gloves!) or chop around them with your shovel to dig them up, you're likely to encourage more shoots from the cut ends of the roots you've left behind.  Instead, use your hand pruners to cut them off just below ground level.  Get in the habit of checking for shoots as part of your normal "what's doing in the garden?" mind-set.  Removing a couple of two-foot shoots per month, any month of the year you notice them, is nothing; removing twenty five-footers next year because you forgot to remove ten of the two-footers this year?  That's tedious. 

Variants

Aralia elata is all too rarely grown as the species itself, where—finally—its suckering can can be an asset.  Think of the plant as a thorny bamboo.  As with bamboo, control is easiest when the plant is allowed to colonize in open lawn; the regular grass mowing that happens all around the colony is enough to control the colony's spread.  The enormous flower clusters display even better against the pure-green foliage than they do against the brighter foliage, fantastic as it is, of the variegates.

 

Besides 'Silver Umbrellas', there are a two other variegates to consider.  The foliage of 'Aureovariegata' is larger, with leaflets edged in cream and gold.  That of 'Variegata' starts out white, but matures to look much like that of 'Aureovariegata'.  Both are slower growing and not as reliable to establish.  If you have only one Aralia elata variegate, make it 'Silver Umbrellas'. 

 

Availability

On-line and at a few destination retailers, such as Broken Arrow.

Propagation

By grafting. 

Native habitat

Japanese Tree Angelica, Aralia elatais, indeed, native to Japan, as well as eastern Russia, China, and Korea.

 

 
 
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