Silk Tassel Bush (Garrya elliptica)

Photo © Bulleen Art & Garden

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In the depths of winter Garrya elliptica suddenly changes from a useful, but somewhat boring, grey-green evergreen shrub into a supremely elegant showstopper. Clever gardeners plant it where the long cascading tassels (catkins) are shown to advantage, sometimes against a wall, sometimes as a shrub along the front fence, always eye-catching. It flowers from mid-winter into spring, with the tassels gradually elongating and subtly changing. In some ways this is a showy plant, but the silvery grey coloured tassels, highlighted against the grey green glossy and slightly wavy foliage, give it an elegant subtlety which lends itself to many different styles of gardens. The leaves are glossy on top but soft and woolly underneath, a lovely contrast and another subtle touch.

Generally growing around 2.5-3m tall in Melbourne, Garrya elliptica can grow to 8m in certain conditions. It is very easy to grow, will take most soil types, drought, salt winds, pollution, sun, shade (but not deep shade) and frosts. However, it will not cope with waterlogging, so if you have clay soils make sure it is in a well-drained position. Try to position it correctly the first time as it doesn’t transplant very well.

The plant is dioecious, the male and female flowers are on separate plants. Both form very attractive catkins, although the male catkins are longer.

A very adaptable plant, you can grow it as a free standing shrub, an espalier or pruned to form a small tree. It forms a neat shrub by itself, but if pruning bear a couple of things in mind. New growth occurs immediately after flowering ends, so prune as soon as flowering has ended – before the new leaves start to emerge. Avoid pruning old wood, but prune lightly over the surface, this encourages new growth over the whole plant, increasing density and thus the number of tassels for display the following winter.

If deeper pruning is needed, only cut back one or two branches at most per year. Closely monitor the vigorous new shoots that will emerge from just below the pruning cuts. These may need more pruning and training.

If flowering is poor one year, there is a good chance that this is due to drought the previous summer. Flower buds are initiated in summer and drought stress over this period will commonly lead to subsequent poor flowering. So, once again, mulch the damp ground in spring (or winter if you like) and deep water as necessary over summer.