Last December I wrote an article entitled “Bold Vision” which discussed an outstanding garden in Nutley, New Jersey done by an exceptional designer, Richard Hartlage. The article discusses, in some detail, the layers and principles of that garden and fine garden design. One plant, in particular, which I was enamored with, in that garden, was Rohdea japonica.
Why discuss an evergreen-perennial seldom seen in gardens this time of year? Because the potential of this uncommon plant lies beyond the footprint it can have in your garden. Rohdea japonica is the sole species in the genus Rohdea. Native to eastern Asia from southwestern China to Japan, the common names for this unique plant are Nippon Lily, Sacred Lily and Japanese Sacred Lily. A rhizomatous, herbaceous perennial with fibrous roots, Sacred Lily has broad, lanceolate, evergreen leaves. The flowers are produced in short, stout, dense spikes with pale yellow markings. However, the fruit is a deep red-orange berry held in tight clusters, nestled deep within the 15” foliage. Rohdea benefits from partial to full shade and appears to be deer resistant in our yard. An excellent choice for a limited spread groundcover, Rohdea is also drought tolerant once established. “Hardy” to zone 6a (-10 Fahrenheit) reports on the internet have the plant doing well in Alabama, Florida, Kansas, Tennessee, Texas, Pennsylvania and of course New Jersey. The leaves and root of this plant are depurative, diuretic and febrifuge, used in the treatment of abscesses, boils and sore throat. Rohdea shows cardiac activity similar to another plant you may have heard of… Foxglove, Digitalis purpurea. While these noted medicinal qualities appear often throughout Internet research, it is important to note that Rohdea is generally regarded as inedible and possibly toxic!
Having known of this plant for a number of years I was inspired to install a small grove of it in our own garden after a recent vacation on the Oasis of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise ship. On this ship Central Park was recreated and a mass planting of Janet Craig Compacta, Dracaena deremensis, reminded me of Rohdea. Sited on the west side of our property, behind a Ginkgo, recessed in an alcove, stands our grove of some 50 Rohdea and today, as I write this article, has some spectacular fruit set coming our way. The lush, thick, almost tropical looking, wide straps of this plant inspired me to also use this versatile perennial in raised applications. On its own, Rohdea looks fantastic in planters and window boxes for the holidays. Over the years we have used this evergreen perennial at restaurants and churches, in their outdoor planters, for holiday decorating.
As with most plants there are several cultivars to be on the look out for. ‘Chirimen Boshi’ has rounded, overlapping leaves with varying degrees of creamy edging. ‘Mure Suzume’ translates to “flock of sparrows” and again offers overlapping leaves, however, this time on a very dwarf plant. White streaks along the rim of its tapered foliage are notable. ‘White Canoe’ has white bands and fills out to a frothy mound of green and white. ‘Yattazu Yan Jaku’ has very distinct upright foliage splashed with creamy markings. Finally, ‘Galle’ seems most closely related to Rohdea japonica with the exception of more polished green leaves that are narrower. Whatever variety you decide on, know that this plant is usually a bit more costly than your other, more easily recognizable, perennials. Not one to equate plants merely to dollars and cents, this perennial is exceptional and the added cost to produce such a plant will more than return its initial cost in your garden.
Richard Hartlage said it best, “It’s not about what is rare, but rather what will work”! In a time when dwarf Alberta spruce seem so prevalent and pedestrian in outdoor planters, flanking the entrance ways to many homes, consider filling your pots with this rugged, perennial-evergreen. Thick, straps of green foliage with red fruit embedded in its interior, what could be more timely than that for the holiday season?