October is always a busy month for California gardeners. Unlike the rest of the country, this is our best season for planting, especially if you are planting native plants. Among my favorite natives is the Silk Tassel, Garrya elliptica. This plant came to botanical prominence when it was brought to England from Oregon by David Douglas (of Douglas Fir fame) in the 1830’s. Silk Tassel is a member of one of only four plant families found only in North America. It grows in the coast range from Oregon south to the middle of California, preferring areas that do not get excessively hot in the summer. In the inland portion of its range, it is found on north facing slopes or shadier locations, while along the coast it will grow in full sun.
Coast Silk Tassel is a multi-trunked, V-shaped shrub that grows to about 12 feet, although under ideal conditions it can become a small tree to 30 feet. Its leaves are dark green and glossy on the top surface and wooly white on the bottom. The common name describes the long catkins that hang from the branches in the springtime. These tend to be cream colored, turning gray as they dry over time. The tassels are found on both male and female plants, although the male tassels are longer. The cultivar ‘James Roof’, named after the former director of the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden, has catkins up to 10 inches long on the male plant.
The Silk Tassel is not fussy about soil type, as long as it is well draining. Although it can become drought tolerant once established, it always looks better with some regular watering. I think it looks best in its natural form, but if you must prune your plant, do this as soon as it finishes flowering.
Garrya elliptica was named after Nicholas Garry, who was an assistant to David Douglas in his explorations of the northwest United States. The species name refers to the shape of the leaves. If you have the space for this large shrub, it will reward you with a wonderful, long lasting display every spring.