bigger the better: aralia cordata and its cousins

aralia-new-houseIF YOU LIKE YOUR PERENNIALS SIZE XL, the genus Aralia is hard to overlook. And like shift workers, its members are just going to the job when everyone else wants to pack it in and crawl back into bed. Yes, the rest of the garden is really starting to crumple and yawn and otherwise express its exhaustion, but here come the aralias (including Aralia cordata, above).

aralia cordata foliage and flowers
Yes, Margaret, that’s A. cordata growing outside your office doorway, though for years I have called the poor oversized thing A. californica, a botanical malapropism of jumbo proportion since that Western native (also known as elk clover) is similar looking. Sorry, big guy.

Good thing I never trust myself and always look things up before I say them out loud, and this time that included emergency SOS’s to the two most Aralia-friendly people I know, Ellen Hornig of Seneca Hills Perennials, and Dan Hinkley, the founder of the original Heronswood Nursery who collected a particularly nice form of A. cordata on one of his explorations in Asia years ago, and has written about the genus in his book “The Explorer’s Garden.”

No, Margaret, they said patiently; not Zone 8 A. californica, silly girl; A. cordata, probably one from Dan’s original stash, though today Ellen is the purveyor of a good 10-foot-tall form (mine is about 8 feet high and wide). To make things worse there’s another one in the catalogs that starts with a C, A. cachemirica, and frankly they are all big and doing their thing now and if you don’t label your plants, as I didn’t mea culpa and total hubris, how can you expect to remember which A.c. it is years later?

But now I have derailed: The point is that aralias are statuesque, late to flower (August into fall) and then loaded with fruit that birds (especially thrush relatives here) crave, and happily grow in partial shade. Oh, and they have flowerheads that look like a cross between fireworks and constellations, though highly organized and more symmetrical than the latter.

I started my journey in the genus more than 15 years ago with Aralia racemosa, above as it looks today, the native American one from almost everywhere but the far west. It gets to about 5 feet in both directions, a plant I still love and perhaps the heaviest-fruited of all (fruit shown below). It’s also a little later to flower than A. cordata, and is just getting going.

aralia racemosa fruits
All of the spikenards, as aralias are also known, will sow (or in the case of the woody one I grow, A. spinosa, sucker) themselves around, so if they go where you don’t want them move seedlings when they are young; don’t wait until they have a tenacious foothold because then even digging “thoroughly” will leave enough behind to sprout a new plant. A bunch of ripened fruits tossed in a shady area will yield babies, in my experience; no fussy handling required of these beasts, at least not here. (That’s the woody one, A. spinosa, in fall fruit and foliage, below, the only one I grow that doesn’t die to the ground each winter.)

I think they’re best in a spot where it’s natural-looking already, such as at the woodland edge or even well into a woodland garden, but remember this: These are big boys, and aren’t going to leave a lot of room for precious little things. Give them plenty of elbow room, and then just enjoy.


August 16, 2009


  1. catjane says

    I was with you until, “don’t wait until they have a tenacious foothold because then even digging ‘thoroughly’ will leave enough behind to sprout a new plant.” I have too many of those kinds of “thugs” growing here now – some native, some not.

    On the subjects of late season delights and favorite shrubs (from an earlier post), I love my Daphne caucasica. I saw a small one once, many years ago, blooming in late fall in a botanical garden and wrote down the name. When I was lucky enough to spot one in a garden center, I grabbed it. My first planting was less than successful – too much shade – but when I moved it to morning sun and high, broken shade, it took off. It has shiny, evergreen leaves and small clusters of scented, white flowers typical of Daphnes. But, unlike its bretheren, it flowers continuously. The show begins in early spring and continues well into fall. Mine is now about 3 feet high and wide and is a handsome, elegant “friend.”

  2. Nancy says

    Will these plants/bushes grow successfully in an area that is overcapped by trees, but where sunlight comes in at some times of the day (early a.m., late afternoon mostly)? I have an area where I would love to screen the neighbor’s shed, compost, upside-down rowboat and power-gear…I am in N. J., zone 6. Thanks!

  3. says

    Love love love love *love.* But then you knew that. ;)

    Mine is over three feet tall already, by the way, and so graceful as to easily put some neighboring hydrangeas to shame. I had no idea A. racemosa got that large! I think I may replace some hydrangeas elsewhere with it, as they’re stubbornly unblooming and need to be relocated out of my deep freeze of a backyard.

    Love! Thanks so much for sharing.

    • says

      @Andrew: I hope that sometimes during transplant season (fall or early spring probably) you will be bringing the adoption wagon this way. I have some real dolls in need of a new Aralia-friendly home. :)

      @Nancy: I used them in a few such areas as part of the seasonal “screen,” yes. Shady and very dry, probably not, but if there is good soil and some moisture, yes.

  4. Keith Alexander says

    For us, the giants of the garden are always Aroids. And usually they’re the Colocasia gigantia on the south deck that reach approximately 8 feet by frost in October. Guests could not care less what else is going on in the garden, it’s those darn Colocasias get the most attention. So we grow the water-hogs as annuals every year. A tradition here, I suppose.

  5. says

    The Aralia Adoption Wagon will be in your neck of the woods mid-September, and I could pretty easily stop by! I suspect Monday, 9/21 would the day. I’ll send you an e-mail when I know more.

    Keith: I don’t know if you’ll see this, but those giganteas are hardy where I’m from, and it’s amazing to see a plant like that come back from the ground.

  6. Keith Alexander says

    Andrew, yes sir, Colocasia gigantea (spelled it correctly this time) is a sight to see coming back from the ground. They’re borderline hardy here, but we usually grow them in very large pots on our deck. They’re too big and too much trouble to overwinter in the greenhouse, so we just let them freeze and plant new juveniles (that we’ve overwintered) in the Spring. Those suckers seed like crazy.

  7. Fred from Loudonville, NY says

    For EXTRA LARGE plants, I like, the Thalictrum (meadow rue), I have two varieties, here at Whimsey Hill House. One has a purple flower, that is still blooming and also has a purplish stem. The other is one that produces a white flower, that has finished flowering, but the spent flower stock still looks pretty. BOTH are about eight foot tall. I discovered those plants at Edith Wharton, The Mount. The Plume Poppy is another favorite, that also comes in at about 8 Foot tall. The plant has wonderful large OAK leaf shaped leaves. The only problem with it is, that it is a bit of a runner. As much as I have TRIED keeping it under control, by planting it in a three foot, by three pot, (that a tree would come in), that I planted in the ground. The DAM thing grew right out of the drainage holes in the bottom of that container. My next favorite is the Sweet Autumn Clematis. I have four that are growing up a six foot tall stocade fence. I have trained them up to the top of the fence, and then horizontally along it’s top. They have produced blankets of growth (six foot tall, and eight feet wide) that is cascading down to the ground. Next month they will be a sea of white flowers. For the tall annuals that are still making the garden look good, the cleome , which can grow five feet tall , is still showing it’s wonderful “wand” like flowers. My father used to call them giraffes. The Caster Bean plant, which likes full sun, and not too many other plants around it’s base, is HAPPY and around 6 1/2 feet tall now. LOVE it’s “Tropical Looks”, and BRIGHT red flower-seed pods.

    • says

      Welcome, Cheryl. I am fenced-in, but I know they will browse the woody Aralia spinosa, so I expect they would try it. They eat everything in my experience, or almost. But no first-hand experience with these and deer. See you soon again.

  8. Alejandro says

    How about Kalopanax septemlobus, or castor aralia? I’ve never tried it myself but I’m planning to do so next spring. There’s a great specimen at the NYBG.

  9. Allison Meinhold says

    Margaret–love this blog–have been reading for a year! This post on the aralia causes me to comment for the first time. Last week, on a “Friday Mornings in the Garden” walk at the Holden Arboretum, in Kirtland, Ohio, we were treated to an aralia in all it’s glory in the equally glorious butterfly garden! I’ve added it to my “must have” list–thank you so much!!

    • says

      Welcome, Allison…glad to hear from you at last in the comments! :) Yes, these are really great plants, and showy, and easy. I know you will enjoy them. They are keeping me very good company right now. See you soon again I hope.

  10. Eric says

    Have you seen Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’? It’s a luminous chartreuse-leafed variety that I saw in late July and it was magical in the shade. Its leaves seemed especially clean – clear of any sort of blemish, tears or bug holes. If only my narrow (18′ wide) garden could handle it…..

    • says

      Welcome, Eric — and yes, I bought a couple of plants (seedlings) last year, and they are shaping up nicely. Can’t wait till they are all grown up. Brilliant looking, as you say. Nice to “meet” you, and come again soon.

  11. says

    We have Devil Walking Sticks here along the coast. The grow in large groups and rather interesting with the spines on the stems and leaves. They produce large clusters of tiny blooms followed by black berries.

  12. Catherine Meguire says

    Loved reading this! Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota carries both seeds and bareroot plants of the native variety. I have just ordered a bareroot Aralia racemosa.

    • margaret says

      Wonderful choice, Catherine. And after it fruits in your garden you will have babies to move around if you want, I expect. I love this plant.

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