Happy New Year, Dear Readers! May 2019 be a peaceful, happy, healthy and inspirational one for all of you…
Dear Readers, this plant and I go back a long, long way, to the first garden that I ever owned. When I was in my late twenties I bought a house in Chadwell Heath, to the north-east of London – this was in the days when someone on an average wage in the capital could afford to do such a thing. How lucky I was! But I wasn’t quite so sure of my luck when, one morning shortly after I’d moved in and following heavy rain, I looked out of the upstairs window to see the whole garden under six inches of water. The clay soil was so heavy and compacted that the water had nowhere to drain, and so I had a swimming pool rather than a garden.
What to do? I was completely inexperienced in such things. Fortunately, Dad had bought me a copy of the RHS Guide to Gardening. It had a section on gardening on clay soil, and so I dug a couple of new beds and sought out plants that would tolerate these conditions. One of my first purchases was a silk tassel bush, properly known as Garrya elliptica. All I knew was that the variety I needed was ‘James Roof’, because of its long, graceful male tassels.
These days I might think twice about planting a bush with so little wildlife value – it is wind-pollinated and, outside of its native Oregon and coastal California, there are few invertebrates that feed on the leaves. But how magnificently it grew in my garden! Surrounded by foxgloves in summer and lily of the valley in spring, it presented a picture of elegance right through the year, and helped to soak up some of the dampness in the garden. I hope that whoever moved in after me admired it as much as I did.
Silk tassel bushes are dioecious, which means that there are male and female plants. The male varieties are the impressive ones, however, with the catkins growing up to a foot in length. The leaves of ‘my’ silk tassel bush have a wavy edge, which distinguishes Garrya elliptica from several other species that grow in the same region.
The plant was named after the Hudson’s Bay Company secretary Nicholas Garry, who helped the Scottish plant hunter David Douglas in his forays in the western USA. Douglas introduced silk tassel bush to the UK in 1828, and I imagine it was a hit with the Victorians who had a taste for such novelties.
Medicinally, the Pomo Indians used the leaves to make an infusion to treat period pains. The bark and leaves may also have insect-repellent properties.
The berries and leaves can be used to produce a black or grey dye, and I recommend having a look at the website for the Winterbourne Dye Project, where the Birmingham Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers have been having all sorts of fun with garden plants. You can read about their experiments with silk tassel bush here.
I can’t find any reference to silk tassel bush being edible, though American Robins (Turdus migratorius) are said to like the berries.
The wood is rather beautiful, but silk tassel bush was never a common plant, and there was no danger of it ever going into mass production. I find it rather interesting that it was also known as ‘quinine tree’, but this seems to be related to the bitter taste of the leaves, rather than to any medicinal properties (quinine, a key ingredient in Indian tonic water, is often seen as a remedy for the symptoms of malaria).
And this week, I have a little treat for you all. I found this very short animated film about the silk tassel bush, and while I am not sure that it is completely botanically accurate, and while my French is just about good enough to get the general idea of what’s going on, I thought it was absolutely charming. Have a look and see what you think…
Photo One by By Salix – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39780179
Photo Two by By Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=602770
Photo Three by By Crematia18 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46870597