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 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 (formerly 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 (mine is about 8 feet high and wide). To make things worse there’s another one occasionally listed 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?

gold aralia cordataBut 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. They happily grow in partial shade, producing flowerheads that look like a cross between fireworks and constellations, though highly organized and more symmetrical than the latter. In recent years, they even come with gold foliage, or at least cordata does, in the form of ‘Sun King’ (that’s it emerging above; it gets to be at least 6 by 6 feet here).

I started my journey in the genus more than 15 years ago with Aralia racemosa, above, the native American one from almost everywhere but the far West. It gets to about 6 feet in both directions, a plant I still love and perhaps the heaviest-fruited of all (fruit shown below). It can be grown from seed. When people see it in summer or fall here, they assume it’s a shrub because of its stature, but it is herbaceous, dying back to ground level each year at hard frost.

aralia racemosa fruits
All of the spikenards, as aralias are also known, will sow themselves around (or in the case of the woody ones I grow, especially A. spinosa, sucker). If they go where you don’t want them, move seedlings when they are young. With either seedlings or runners, don’t wait until they have a tenacious foothold because then even digging “thoroughly” will leave enough behind to sprout a new plant.

A handful 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 native woody one, A. spinosa, in fall fruit and foliage, below. The other woody one I grow is Asian native A. elata, of which there are two very nice grafted forms with variegated leaves–including the one at the bottom of the page.)

aralia-spinosa-fruit-and-foliageI 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.

aralia elata silver umbrella

  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. Andrew 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.

    1. Margaret 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. Andrew 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.

    1. Margaret 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!!

    1. Margaret 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…..

    1. Margaret 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. 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.

    1. 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.

  13. Zelma Boggess says:

    Thank you for highlighting this variety.

    Now I just have to have Aralia cordata for our honey bees and other pollinators.

    Now my challenge is finding some to plant or grow from seeds.

    I have lots of acres and can raise more if I can find the seeds or just roots to plant.

  14. Laura says:

    I don’t know what kind I have but, one day, I decided my Aralia was too big for where it had happily been for 5 years next to the house.
    I moved it to the edge of the woods and was dismayed to discover 3 days later something had eaten it to the ground!!! We have had a woodchuck this year……

  15. pat mattingly says:

    We have had great success with “Sun King” in both sun and shade. But this year several did well through June, the began dying back , turning brown to the ground. No obvious critters or nearby fungal infestation. Have you seen anything similar?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Pat. How much sun/how dry? It has been abnormally dry here, with hot spells as well, so a lot of my gold things are not happy, including one of these.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Linda. As mentioned in the story, A. racemosa (and A. californica if you are out West) are the U.S. counterparts. I grow mostly racemosa, for 25 years. A. spinosa, also mentioned, is our native woody version and a bird favorite. So you could consider those.

  16. Bill Plummer says:

    Aralia nudicaulis was indigenous to our property. It sure likes to send out runners. The first year I had Aralia racemosa it grew to five feet. After that it was lucky to top out at two feet. It has never self-seeded and a local nursery owner says she has not had success. I would like to get more. Do you know a source?

  17. Irene says:

    Fred, I saw the thalictrum at Wharton’s The Mount for the first time in July. Was so taken by this plant and am preparing a new bed–hope I can find and fit in the meadow rue in spring 2016.
    Thanks for the reminder.

  18. Michelle in WI, Zone 5b says:

    Eureka, I think I have one of these just like the one in the last picture. I had admired a plant in my neighbors yard and she had received it from a friend but neither of them knew what it was. My neighbor gave me one from her friend and it is in its third year, first year with flowers. It is the only plant in my yard that I didn’t know but I could never find a plant like it at the nurseries or in online searches. Glad I gave it a big spot. I knew my neighbor’s had grown large so I actually placed it to hide an anchoring cable for the utility pole at the corner of my yard.

  19. Jeanne De Ianni says:

    Margaret, I love that you highlight a specific plant and discuss it. I am so overwhelmed many garden choices. This really helps me. Thanks.


  20. Eleanor Dumont says:

    Have had the exact same experience as Pat Mattingly with my three year old Aralia Sunkings. Up until this year they have been outstanding, and I wonder if this is going to be a yearly occurence. I certainly hope not, especially as I dug one up early in the year and gave it to a friend with a new garden. Now I’m worried that I may have inadvertantly transferred disease to her garden!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Eleanor (and Pat). I will email a couple of nursery friends to see if they have heard anything in the trade. I have grown them for as many years as they have been “out there” (before they went into commercial nursery production, when a propagator friend gave me seedlings…so hmmmm…6 or 8 years?) and all my plants are fine, except for some sulking one in the sunnier spots I have them in. But I will find out!

      1. Gayle says:

        I have had the same experience with my ASK plants – I have three – in a zone 5 garden – planted in three different amounts of shade – from pretty much full sun in the afternoon to some direct sun in the morning to no direct sun at all. They all are spectacular disease free huge plants until some time in late july or august when they all begin to die back. By mid to late September they are gone completely – have to cut them back to the ground. But they bounce back the next year. Would love to know why this is happening.

  21. Embee says:

    I’m a little late to the party here but I had to chime in on Sun King. I purchased a small nursery one some years ago not knowing anything about it (or how BIG it would get) and I’ve grown to love it. It is in a partial shade location on a berm full of greens -hostas, rhododendrons, bamboo fargesia rufa – lots of different textures. But the wow factor is the size and the brilliant chartreuse color. There are other large plants around (big hostas and petasites) but the color of the Sun King is a show stopper even from out on the road about 80 feet away. The flowers, aptly described as fireworks, are subtle on the plant, but put some solo in a vase (no foliage necessary) and give them to friends – they’ll be bowled over. I guarantee they’ve never seen anything like it.

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