17 Mar Paperbush
One of the more exciting opportunities afforded to me during the winter is going to tradeshows. After the holidays and before the anticipated explosion of springs arrival sits a few months of down time. It is now that opportunities can be taken advantage of. One of the largest trade shows for the industry took place last month in Baltimore, Maryland. The Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS) is a who’s who of the industry. New products, both green goods and hard goods, and seminars are both teeming. Often I am asked what new products or plants were at the show. This year, one plant that stood out for me, was one that I had forgotten about until now.
I could smell the plant seconds before I found it in the trade show aisle. Paperbush, Edgeworthia chrysantha, typically is sought after in warmer climates. Listed academically as a zone 7 (possibly 6b), Paperbush has reports of surviving slightly below 0 degree temperatures. A genus of two or three species in the Thymelaeaceae family, it is related to Daphne and Dirca palustris (leatherwood). Curiously, if you have ever touched or played with the stems of Daphne, you may have noticed that they are so pliable, you can sometimes tie them into knots. The same holds true for this harbinger of spring. Thus its nickname “knot plant”. A native to the Szechuan province in China, Edgeworthia has been used to manufacture high quality paper as well as for medicinal purposes.
Aside from it being a very curious, weird or academic test for collectors, Paperbush has several attributes lending itself well to year round gardening. The most obvious are its flowers. In the fall/winter, large clusters of tubular buds, held in 1” long umbels (resembling the stays of an umbrella) appear. The outside of these tubes are coated with white silky hairs. During the dead of winter, February and March, these large, terminal clusters begin to open and develop into a butter-yellow tubular flower. Granted, each tube on its own is not that impressive. However, when you bundle them up, a gorgeous round ball of butter covered popcorn appears. The scent of these flowers is amazingly fragrant, often compared to gardenia, only spicier. Expect 3-4 weeks on intense color and fragrance. Looking at the specimens at the trade show, I could not help but think the flowers themselves, in their different stages of development, looked somewhere between that of Wheel-Tree Trochodendron aralioides and Callery Pear Pyrus calleryana. Another winter interest feature, appropriate for this time of year, is its bark. A reddish-brown color is said to have an unusual odor when bruised. As of yet, I can not comment on the fore mentioned. Edgeworthia’s leaves are a medium blue-green, in the spring and summer, oval in shape, with rich shades of yellow fall color. Finally, purplish-green drupes (fruits) are reported, but seldom seen.
Paperbush benefits from well drained, humus enriched soils. Partial shade and almost more than adequate water is recommended. While Edgeworthia can handle full sun, it is important to note that Paperbush grows natively along streambeds and in forests. In short, growing Edgeworthia would be similar to growing ericaceous plant like rhododendron, wintergreen or mountain laurel. Expect heights of 4 to 6 feet tall and wide at maturity. For best results, site this deciduous beauty in a protected area away from windy areas. Paperbush makes a great specimen, is elegant when massed in a woodland setting or can be very effective as part of a mixed shrub border. Red flower types are available however; it can sometimes be a chore just finding Edgeworthia let alone red flower types.
Named after Michael Pakenham Edgeworth (1812-1881) who was a botanist, plant collector and employee for the East India Company, Paperbush is a welcome sight in the doldrums of winter. If you are concerned about the “hardiness” of the plant, you could always consider container gardening. Keeping your Edgeworthia in a container gives you flexibility of bringing it indoors during a harsh winter. What a pleasant surprise you will have next winter…sweet, fragrant, beautiful flowers held terminally on the tips on a deciduous shrub will wet your appetite for spring’s arrival.