Enjoy a surprise in the bleak mid-winter: paperbush. I remember my first encounter with this curious and delightful plant on a January walkabout. I was drawn to the shrub’s silvery-white, globe-like clusters atop its bare, cinnamon-colored forked stems, lighting up the otherwise drab landscape.
These pearly spheres are tight buds of tubular flowers, preparing to burst into radiant yellow bloom in February that usually lasts through April, producing a delicious fragrance.
The plant has received a lot of love in recent years from nurserymen staging winter flower shows because it is one of the easiest shrubs to force into early bloom indoors. Its flowers in winter are naturally treasured.
The genus of the plant’s unusual Latin name, Edgeworthia chrysantha, was given in honor of Michael Pakenham Edgeworth, an Irish-born Victorian era amateur botanist who worked for the East India Company. He discovered the plant in the Himalayas and introduced the Asian native to England around 1850. The Japanese call it mitsumata bush, a reference to the interesting triple branching pattern seen in this species (mitsu meaning three).
The common name, paperbush, highlights the plant’s notable bark which is unusually pliable. Its fibers are used in Japan for making the high quality, traditionally hand-made papers used for calligraphy, for decorative wallpaper, and for the finest quality banknotes in the world – known for their durability and for being the most difficult to counterfeit.
YOUR UMBRELLA PLANT
The elegant yet sturdy deciduous shrub has a handsome overall dome shape once it leafs out and is well-suited to the South. Lance-shaped, leathery blue-green leaves, growing up to 10 inches long in clusters at the ends of its branches, cover the umbrella-shaped shrub, giving it an exotic, almost tropical appearance in summer. The plant drops all its leaves without their changing color, but it does begin a very dramatic show of another kind in late fall.
Silky, silvery hairs of the emerging rounded flower buds catch the light so that the bush appears from a distance to be in bloom at the end of the year, but the drooping tubular clusters are growing in size and prominence on the tops of naked stems like so many little icy lollipops. The shrub’s forked branches dotted with their luminous balls impose startling and distinctive tracery designs on the winter landscape. As its nobby silver buds pop open, they form pendant clusters of tubular blooms in early spring that project out from the center in a fluffy starburst, white on the outside, but tipped with buttery yellow.
You will want to plant paperbush in your home garden near a walk or patio so that all its subtle seasonal changes can be admired and appreciated daily and its intoxicating fragrance can be fully experienced. The fragrance is as heady as gardenia or daphne, but the blossoms are on deciduous stems so that the floral effect, undiluted by foliage, is ethereal.
GROWING TIPS FOR PAPERBUSH
Paperbush is related to daphne but is much easier to grow. Place your shrub in a sheltered spot to prevent its early buds from getting frostbite. It also will appreciate a bit of afternoon shade. Use a soaker hose to provide the young plant with slow, deep watering to help develop a healthy root system. Paperbush requires little to no pruning. Growth is rapid with the shrub reaching 5-8 feet in height and width.
Paperbush is genuinely one of those rare plants that provide constant interest throughout the year. In this season when the landscape has been in a frozen slumber, the daily quickening of its expectant buds seems to awaken us and urge us forward toward spring. We wait expectantly, banking on its rewards. Although we do not, in this country, process the bark of paperbush into money, its form and substance in all seasons provide a unique garden currency.