Plant of the Month: Garrya elliptica “James Roof”

CATKINS are one of winter’s supreme decorations and few shrubs or small trees can rival the garrya’s stunning January and February display. The long, hanging silvery catkins are a striking sight in winter. With its evergreen leaves and graceful catkins, Garrya is an excellent wall shrub or informal hedge that could help lighten your mood even on the darkest of winter days.
Garrya is a small genus distributed along North America’s western coastlands, from Mexico to Oregon. Garrya elliptica, the hardiest species and the one best-suited to the British climate, was introduced to British Horticulture by Scottish plant hunter David Douglas in 1828. He named the plants after the Hudson Bay Company’s Nicholas Garry, who helped Douglas with his forays in western USA.
Numerous garryas thrive in Britain, however the showiest are found in milder climates and coastal locations. The stiff, dark glossy leaves have wavy margins and their woolly, silvery undersides immediately distinguish the garrya from other evergreens.
Garryas need well-drained conditions, its happy on poor soils and tolerant of salt spray and urban pollution. Its prize is its catkins: 6in-8in long, slender tassels with a grey, silky sheen, hanging in clusters from the branches of male plants throughout January and February. The female’s 4in-long catkins are only slightly less ornamental but they are followed in late summer by clusters of purply-brown fruits.
The variety ‘James Roof’ (named after the Garden Director at the Regional Parks Botanic Garden near Berkeley, California and found growing there in a batch of seedlings about 50 years ago) has the longest of all garrya catkins, reaching up to 14in.
Plants can be pruned to maintain their shape or to remove any dead branches. This should be done immediately after flowering (in early spring) so that new catkin-bearing growth can develop in time for the following winter. Garryas dislike root disturbance and will most likely die if moved too often. Try to site them correctly, bearing in mind that the protection of a north or east-facing wall often proves ideal in this country. Given a south-facing aspect, however, sheltered by other trees from the worst of winter’s frost and high winds (which are likely to burn and discolour the foliage), it is capable of immense and unblemished beauty. In open situations, it can reach up to 15ft. Infant plants in cold districts benefit from a wrapping of fleece or bracken during winter. The plant is easily increased by 4in semi-ripe cuttings taken in late summer and placed in a open (sandy) rooting medium.
I often use this shrub to soften the walls of a house in a shadier location. This handsome evergreen shrub can be overlooked during other times of the year but comes into its own during the bleak winter months. If underplanted with Dryopteris erythorsa, helleborus and other shade lovers, you can create a simple but effective scheme which will provide a stunning scheme in the depths of the winter. If you have a slightly sunnier spot then try underplanting with geranium rozanne or patricia. The stems of the geranium will work their way into the shrub and their little flowers will poke out to provide a little bit of summer colour too.