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Garrya, Silk Tassel Bush

One of the most dramatic winter flowering shrubs in California is coast silk tassel (Garrya elliptica). It is native to the coastal counties of California from Ventura County to southwestern Oregon.

Although plants can grow to 24 feet with an equal spread in the wild, they are usually smaller and are fairly slow growing in the garden. The oval, dark, evergreen leaves have a leathery texture and wavy margins. They have a bitter taste and were used by early settlers as a substitute for quinine (hence, its other common name, the quinine bush). Garrya is dioecious (male and female flowers on separate plants) and it is the male that is spectacular in bloom. Beginning in December and lasting into early spring, long, silvery-green catkins hang from the branches. The most commonly available cultivars at nurseries are 'James Roof', a prolific bloomer with foot-long catkins; and 'Evie', a more compact selection with slightly shorter catkins.

The coast silk tassel is very slow to start but once established, it will make up for lost time. It grows best in the coastal counties in which it is native. In its native range it likes sun to part shade and infrequent watering, and works well as an informal hedge or screen. Some companion plants are Douglas iris, western columbine and meadow rue.

In Southern California, G. elliptica likes extra watering, but it also needs well-drained soil. Plants grown in insufficient drainage can be prone to water molds. The species in general is also susceptible to Botryosphaeria, a fungal disease that can result in branch dieback. Pruning in summer months and with proper hygienic practices will help deter the spread of this pathogen.

If you are not on the coast, seek out the species of silk tassel bush like G. fremontii or G. flavescens that grow in inland areas. G. flavescens is native to chaparral areas in Southern California, and lights up like a Christmas tree when in bloom. These species can be much more difficult to find than the more readily available G. elliptica, but your search may be rewarded with an unusual specimen of beautiful native shrub. Contact your local CNPS chapter to see if they can help you with selection and availability of an appropriate choice for your area.

From an article by Vivian Mazur originally written for the Inverness Garden Club, Marin County, and adapted with contributions from members of the Horticulture Committee of the California Native Plant Society.

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Garrya elliptica 'James Roof', photo by Peigi Duvall, garden in San Carlos designed by Peigi, with bare branches of Buckeye and red berries of Toyon in the background.

Garrya elliptica in the wild near the town of Pacifica, several miles south of the golden gate bridge. They occur with rare maritime chaparral with Arctostaphylos montaraensis on Montara Mountain. Photo by Brett Hall.

Garrya elliptica on Montara Mountain. Photo by Brett Hall.

Garrya elliptica on Montara Mountain. Photo by Brett Hall.

Garrya elliptica on Montara Mountain. Photo by Brett Hall.

Garrya elliptica on Montara Mountain. Photo by Brett Hall.

Garrya elliptica on Montara Mountain. Photo by Brett Hall.

Garrya elliptica on Montara Mountain. Photo by Brett Hall.

Garrya species (female in fruit). Summer in Siskiyou County on Gazzelle-Callahan Road at about 3.500 ft elevation. Photo by Jay Thesken.

Flowers of Garrya elliptica. Photo by Philip Van Soelen


Flowers of Garrya elliptica. Photo by Philip Van Soelen


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