great shrub: aralia elata ‘silver umbrella’
IHAVE ALREADY CONFESSED MANY TIMES OVER to a love of the genus Aralia. One fairly recent acquisition, bought as a young grafted shrub maybe five years ago, is finally shaping up enough to cause people—and a happy frenzy of bees and wasps—to really take notice this time of year. Aralia elata ‘Silver Umbrella,’ a variegated form of the Japanese angelica tree, is in fine form.
Aralia elata, which in time may grow into a 10- or 12-foot large shrub or small tree, suckers like its close American cousin Aralia spinosa, or devil’s walking stick—and both have spiny trunks. A. elata has a tropical look, between the giant frond-like leaves and the oversized billows of creamy flowers from midsummer into fall, when purplish fruit forms that the birds enjoy.
The straight green species (too rambunctious for the garden, but used as the rootstock for the fancier variegated cultivars) is hardy to Zone 4, and ‘Silver Umbrella’ may be, too—but it certainly is here in Zone 5B. Mine is growing on the north side of the house, getting maybe half-day indirect afternoon sun from the west, so part shade is fine.
The downside: The handsome variegated cultivars must be grafted, so they’re expensive and uncommonly grown, and the grafting also means that they revert. Be tough on any all-green shoots, and remove them at once. I read that in Japan and Korea, the tender new shoots from the ends of the branches are eaten in tempura and other dishes, but for now, I’m just discarding the unwanted bits.
Because of sticker shock, I started with a small plant, and grew it in a large weatherproof pot for a couple of years, plunging it, pot and all, into the vegetable garden each winter. Finally, I set it free for good, and it has settled in pretty quickly.
Prefer to add gold-variegated accents to the landscape rather than white? There’s a ‘Gold Umbrella’ now, too, which opens all green but develops thick gold leaf edges. ‘Aureovariegata’ has irregular gold margins on its foliage throughout the growing season.