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shacked up with big, tender farfugium

Farfugium japonicum 'Giganteum'ITELL EVERYONE I LIVE ALONE, but true confession: I’m shacked up here with a big hunk of a Farfugium (and yes, even though he told me his name was Ligularia when we first met years ago, I still love him). And I think I’ve finally learned how to make him happy, even though he’d prefer to live a couple of zones farther south in winter than we do.

My original piece of Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’ (then known as Ligularia tussilaginea ‘Gigantea’) came many years ago, from a friend at a New York City public garden. Summers, it was lusty and bold, growing mightily in a pot and showing off like crazy. But I could never make the plant completely happy in the offseason, or so I thought, and after torturing it in my house one winter and in my basement (trying to force dormancy) the next, I gave the exhausted creature to a friend with a greenhouse.

trayI kept his likeness here with me, and I guess I pined for him: A mid-century tray I’d bought at at antiques store bore an image of Farfugium, though not to scale. The plant bears ultra-shiny leaves that get to about 15 inches across.

When I saw its shining face not long ago in the Plant Delights catalog, which credited the same person I’d gotten my original division from as its donor, I longed for it again and ordered another piece.

Why was I confident I could make this Zone 8 creature happy this time around? In the years since, I’ve been experimenting with more and more Zone 8-ish plants and some even more tender than that, from Zone 9 and even 10: things I love to have in pots in summer but couldn’t stomach tossing each fall.

I tuck the almost-hardy things like Japanese maples in the unheated barn, just to give them wind protection and keep the ice off them, but Zone 8 or more tender things won’t stand for that.

I knew the house proper was no place for many of these plants in winter: so dry, and often overheated for their tastes during the low-light season. The dark side of the basement (at mid-40s or maybe 50) is good for things that will go to sleep, like cannas, and the one area of the cellar near a little window seems fine for those willing to suffer a sort of suspended animation, including (surprise!) phormiums.

Farfugium didn’t want to stop growing, so I offered him another accommodation altogether: the back mudroom off the house—very bright, but probably 55 degrees maximum. And I water regularly; not sodden, but never dry, either.

Some of my overwintering tactics were suggested to me by the plants, not by some stroke of genius. If they grew weak and spindly, I tried less watering and/or less light or a cooler spot, to slow them down more. And I kept noticing that surprising things resurrected themselves: Scented geraniums I’d cut back but not uprooted from large pots of something else stashed in the basement grew back right from their roots the next spring, and the same with the golden sweet potato vine. It’s astonishing how many of what we in cold zones use as annuals tolerate total deprivation of light and water all winter long.

euphorbia-cotinifolia_0I’ve got three big Euphorbia cotinifolia (above) in the suspended-animation side of the basement, hoping to unlock the secret of multi-year success with these beauties, fingers crossed. I used to keep them in the house and let them defoliate, the prune them in spring, but it wasn’t pretty.

Do you experiment, too, with tender things, to get your money’s worth from them year to year? Any secrets you care to share?

  1. eliz says:

    Yes, the overwintering solutions: I have tried most of them too. Now I have a rather cool plant room (former office) that I have equipped with lights and a humidifier. It has a south window and stays about 59-60, maybe. It’s harboring colocasia, alocasia, musa, jasmine, gardenia, flowering maple, geranium, plactranthus, forced bulbs, and the usual houseplants. The farfugium looks lovely. I wonder if it is prey to slugs?

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Eliz. I have not had slug damage in my potted Farfugium, and the leaves are quite thick (sometimes a help against the beasts). So I have no certain answer on that. Sounds like you have a whole sanitorium for tender plants over there; love the image of them all. I let the elephant ears go dormant with the cannas in the basement, and am trying some of the more aquatic ones in a big tub of water down there this year….who knows what will result?

  2. I don’t have any secrets about tender things (living in zone 9) but just wanted to say I’d been wanting the monster Farfugium for ages and finally found one in November. So happy.

    (I don’t mail order plants. I figure it’s a slippery slope best not stepped out onto. So I’d been scouring local nurseries, waiting for one to appear.)

  3. Uli says:

    Hello Margaret. Our garden in Toronto, Canada relies heavily on the successful overwintering of many of these plants. I grew the Ligularia tussilaginea ‘Cristata’ as a house plant in our southern exposure window for many years and it grew into such a beautiful specimen, that Dan Hines used it as a display when he was lecturing up here once. Unfortunatly, I brought it outdoors for the summer and it became infested with mealy bugs which I could not eradicate. I have been told the the smooth leaved Farfugium, such as you have, are readily grown as house plants in Malta.
    The Euphorbia cotinifolia I have in that same southern exposure window and water only when the leaves droop. House temperatures are comfortable but on the cool side. Bananas are kept in the dark furnace room with only one small eastern window and watered maybe four times throughout the winter. Phormiums must be kept on the dry side but they too are prone to mealy bugs which is why I now hesitate to keep them indoors with so many other plants nearby.
    Cannas are fine dormant in the basement with no light.
    I have two large Cupressus ‘Goldcrest’ in the unheated garage right now, propped up on bricks),and so far, they are fine. I just gave them some water last week. We’ll see if they survive until spring.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Karen (though you are not a stranger, I think this may be your first comment???), and welcome Uli. I am happy, Karen, to hear you scored the Farfugium, and hope you two will be endlessly happy together. :)

      Uli, thank you for the details of your overwintering system…wow! I am fascinated about the E. cotinifolia, of course, which I tortured indoors here so many years. So many factors (temperature, humidity, light, how much you water, and as you say pests) contribute to success or failure. Which is why I say i “experiment,” because there is no sure roadmap from spot to spot, it seems. Thanks for more hints of methods to try.

      Hope to see you both again soon.

  4. That’s a beautiful farfugium. I’m currently torturing a pretty spotted one in my “plantry” – a drafty south facing entry porchlet that can sink into the 30’s even when I remember to turn on the heater. I’ve got a lemon, clivias, geraniums, phormiums, tender lavenders, a rosemary, a giant agave and a monster orchid cactus out there too. So far everyone seems to be doing OK…

  5. Those lovely leaves seem worth the trouble, Margaret! A similar plant ID’d as a Ligularia caught everyone’s eye at “Fatal Flowers”, one of the stops on the Austin Garden Conservancy Tour last October. Knowing the name Farfugium in addition to Ligularia may up my chances of finding a plant when it’s time to try one.

    My Z8B house has no Plantry, no enclosed porch and no basement, so the tender Plumeria & a few succulents overwinter in the attached garage while the Meyer’s Lemon is crowded into the bay window in the breakfast room. We don’t have steady cool temperatures here – frosty nights frequently alternate with 80°F days – there’s no way to keep plants (or people) in that restful 50-60° range!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  6. Melanie says:

    I just ordered Euphorbia cotinifolia from Avant Gardens. I’ll get it in May. I’ve wintered over Euphorbia ‘diamond frost’ with great success. Easy to propagate too.

  7. I never knew of this plant until I arrived in South Carolina, where I simultaneously found the “evil” Plant Delights Nursery, to which we make two trips a year, not to mention the number of plants I buy from them at their web site……yes, truly evil…..(grin!) Here (haha!) they are totally happy and absolutely gorgeous. They get bigger and lusher every year and make of joy of going out on January days to investigate the garden.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Peg. So you are not shacked up with Farfugium like I am as much as living out in nature together with him? :) I am jealous of your proximity to Tony’s wonderful, I mean evil, nursery. Thanks for visiting, and do come again soon.

  8. I think my zone has shifted from 4 to 5 over the past 30 years, but, as much as I admire the efforts you describe, it exhausts me just to hear about it. Fortunately I am fairly fickle and keep finding new plants that delight me and return my enthusiasm with their hardiness.

  9. Mars says:

    Margaret let me ask you something that just dropped in my head, please. What is the name of the plant that has the tiny spiral twigs or leaves? You know, the ones you can actually see twist up in your palm? I LOVE those and haven’t seen them since I was a child. I always forget to ask someone at the nursery.

  10. leslie land says:

    Older I get, the more my mind and heart are with commonweeder. Unfortunately, the rest of me is still with Margaret – and the rest of you – in a house infested with overwintering plants. Peppers, passionflowers and tender salvias in the little greenhouse; cymbidiums with the forcing bulbs in an enclosed north porch; alocasias, brugmansias, cannas, figs and way too many dahlias in the cellar… Staying away from Plant Delights doesn’t help and where Margaret has brought this up just when the catalogs are coming in, I hereby accuse her of making things worse by reminding us how delightful (at least in the summer) too-tender plants can be.

  11. Alejandro says:

    I leave brugmansia, banana, tibouchina, lantana, euphorbia cotinifolia, agapanthus, cannas, dahlias, hedychiums, eucomis and some potted grasses that go dormant in a cool and dark room.
    My farfugium is in the greenhouse. Last year I let it flower which was a mistake: the flowers have nothing to boast about and then the leaves were much smaller than usual.

  12. Mars says:

    Thank you so much Margaret, but no…

    The one I’m thinking of is curly and is very small and looks like a thin brown twig/stick in the shape of a spiral staircase (the curves are perfectly formed too). It’s about 1 to 1.5 inches. It’s really the cutest thing. What may’ve misled you in my description is that I forget to add it’s only a part of a plant (or tree). Something that falls off or that you remove. Unfortunately, I was too young to care when it was in our backyard (in So. Cal.). The only other time I saw another one was out in a field in Santa Cruz about four years ago. Sigh. But don’t worry about it. :) I need to remember to do some investigation on it. Something about your plant comment stirred my memory, though. Thanks again!

    1. margaret says:

      Mars: I have sent your queries off to my pal Bob, a native SoCal type who then worked for years at Strybing Arboretum in SF…now you have me endlessly curious. Maybe he can help. Stay tuned.

  13. Mars says:

    Hee-hee! Yay! Together we’ll find the spiral thingy. ;D

    Thank you, Margaret. Something tells me he’ll find this in a snap.

  14. Jack Potter says:

    In case Bob hasn’t got back to you yet, Margaret, and Mars, let me submit a guess that the spiral thingy is likely Resurrection Plant, Selaginella lepidophylla. U Conn’s website offers photos and natural history:
    http://faculty.ucc.edu/biology-ombrello/pow/resurrection_plant.htm
    I remember seeing them in dime stores when I was a kid. I didn’t know what they were, then (alive? dead? animal, vegetable or mineral?). I’m glad to be reminded of them and have the chance, at last, in the age of Google, to understand them better.

    1. margaret says:

      Welcome, Jack, and thank you. Your answer (and comment) spent some time in the spamfolder (apparently the technology here is on to you, Jack). But I have fished it out. Let’s see what Mars says…if this is the solution. Good one!

  15. Norma says:

    I overwinter a potted Agapanthus in our mudroom–very little light, in the 50s (I would guess). I water it maybe once or twice a winter. The leaves go yellow and fall off, but I have great blooms in the summer if I keep it overcrowded in the pot.

    My sunny, warm, dining room is so jammed with plants in the winter, we can hardly find our way to the table in the jungle.

  16. Rob Beebe says:

    I’ve had good results overwintering Farfugium the past two winters by healing them into a good garden soil up against the south side of a stone wall here in Michigan. Then I put 3 feet of well-watered composting leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps on top of them. Both years they emerged from this in late April without a hint of damage, but of course all the leaves had died off and nice little pale green-white shoots were just emerging at the surface of their garden bed. Success!

    1. Margaret says:

      Thanks, Rob, for the tipoff. A friend of mine inland from Boston, MA, did this with a Gunnera for many years — bushel baskets of leaves and even the baskets turned upside down over that.

  17. Regina says:

    Farfugium! I am going through year 2 of what to do with mine (looks just like yours). I love it so dang much, and I killed it last winter. I’m in zone 6 or 7 (depending on who you ask) in Brooklyn NY. I have 2 other Farfugiums (a spotty one and a curly one-how’s that for proper cultivar names?) that made it just fine, planted in several spots in the yard, both protected and not so protected.Of course, my favorite one just melted. I think I hastened it’s death by cutting the leaves back, rather than letting them wither, and cover the crown. i didn’t cut the others back. I keep mine potted too (such a great plant in a pot) so I fret about what to do all through autumn. I may attempt to bring it inside this year, although sadly, I also lack a plantry.

  18. Anna d says:

    This is super late to be relevant anymore but the plant I’m reminded of by mars’ description is a weed I always found entertaining as a kid, apparently called red stem filaree or storks bill. The seed pods are tiny, slightly barbed and carry a spiraling tail.

  19. Aimee says:

    Wintered Farfugium j. gigantea in unheated greenhouse (zone 8B). Did so well I had to keep watering or it wilted. Was thrilled to find it at Fred Meyer (chain—don’t know if you have them back there). Had F. j. crispum, for which I paid an arm & a leg, but lost it due to ignoring advice not to divide it until it got stronger. Why would the nursery worker that sold it to me possibly know anything? (Joy Creek—Scapoose, Or.)
    Eagerly awaiting your next book!

  20. Sally Alexander says:

    I am ready to divide my farfugium gigantea, its been two years in a large pot that now needs to be twice as large. Its a moist May here in Oklahoma, but I can only stand to let it go as far as my covered front porch, but inside in the east window in the winter and early spring. Anything I need to know to make it a successful split?

    1. margaret says:

      Whatever plant I dig and divide, I try to observe what’s going on underground with its roots — how they grow, and if there are obvious growing points (sometimes called “eyes”) or what. I look for the logical place to take the plant apart if it needs division, and I usually have success feeling my way through like that!

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