Plant 63

Garrya elliptica Lindl. ex Dougl. (Garryaceae)


Silk tassle bush

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Garrya elliptica, a species native to the coastal scrub, chaparral and evergreen forests of California and southern Oregon, is a prominent plant of the winter garden. Long (up to 30 cm), pendulous, silvery, male catkins contrast with the dark green, leathery, evergreen, wavy-margined leaves of this frost-hardy shrub. Female plants, whilst having similar vegetative appearance to their male counterparts, generally have short catkins, are not as attractive and are consequently less frequently cultivated.

The prodigious Scottish plant collector David Douglas introduced Garrya elliptica to Britain from North America in 1828. The Horticultural Society of London sponsored Douglas in his American journeys and Douglas's introduction flowered for the first time in Society's garden in October 1834. By the time John Lindley, backbone of the Horticultural Society, formally described Garrya elliptica, in 1834, Douglas was dead - killed in a Hawaiian bull pit.

At Douglas's suggestion, the generic name commemorates Nicholas Garry, Secretary of the Hudson's Bay Company, the man who did so much to facilitate his North American work.

According to Lindley, Garrya lacked the beauty of other genera introduced by Douglas, including Berberis, Ribes and Penstemon, but it was probably the 'greatest botanical curiosity in all his collection'. Botanical curiosity, as well as winter interest, adds to the attractiveness of Garrya elliptica as a garden plant.

Lindley placed the American genus Garrya (15 species distributed from Washington State to Panama and east to Texas and the Caribbean) in its own family, Garryaceae. Today the family includes another popular ornamental, the Asian genus, Aucuba (c.3 species), which was formerly included in the Cornaceae (dogwood family). The French botanist Henri Baillon proposed the close relationship between Garrya and Aucuba as early as 1879. However, other botanists disagreed and more than 120 years of argument passed before the academic community finally accepted Baillon's view. The evidence comes from anatomy, DNA characters and chemistry, especially a particular chemical cocktail, which includes the unique petroselinic acid. Molecular data also show a strong relationship between Garryaceae and the Eucommiaceae (gutta percha family), another tiny Asian family. Curiously, both Garryaceae and Eucommiaceae have been used as sources of specialised rubbers.

The simplicity of individual male and female Garrya flowers belies the complexity of their interpretation since Lindley's original descriptions. As the presence of catkins implies, Garrya elliptica is wind pollinated. However, the male flowers appear to have a vestigial nectary, which has often been confused for an ovary.

Burge DO 2011. Molecular phylogenetics of Garrya (Garryaceae). MadroƱo 58: 249-255.

Liston A 2003. A new interpretation of floral morphology in Garrya (Garryaceae). Taxon 52: 271-276.

Stephen Harris

The 25th July 2021 marks 400 years of botanical research and teaching by the University of Oxford.

As a celebration and count-down to this anniversary, the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum, together with the Oxford University Herbaria and the Department of Plant Sciences, will highlight 400 plants of scientific and cultural significance. One plant will be profiled weekly, and illustrated with images from Oxford University's living and preserved collections.

  • Plant 62: Psilotum nudum
  • Plant 61: Cyclamen species
  • Plant 60: Hevea brasiliensis
  • Plant 59: Semele androgyna
  • Plant 58: Monstera deliciosa
  • Plant 57: Musa textilis
  • Plant 56: Piper nigrum
  • Plant 55: Viscum album
  • Plant 54: Dieffenbachia seguine
  • Plant 53: Salvinia molesta
  • Plant 52: Saccharum officinarum
  • Plant 51: Metasequoia glyptostroboides
  • Plant 50: Equisetum sp.
  • Plant 49: Fraxinus excelsior
  • Plant 48: Rosmarinus officinalis
  • Plant 47: Ptelea trifoliata
  • Plant 46: Acer saccharum
  • Plant 45: Brassica oleracea
  • Plant 44: Helianthus annuus
  • Plant 43: Ricinus communis
  • Plant 42: Simmondsia chinensis
  • Plant 41: Chara sp.
  • Plant 40: Zingiber officinale
  • Plant 39: Aristolochia clematitis
  • Plant 38: Allium cepa
  • Plant 37: Galium tricornutum
  • Plant 36: Artemisia annua
  • Plant 35: Rosa canina
  • Plant 34: Nepenthes rajah
  • Plant 33: D. caryophyllus x barbatus
  • Plant 32: Taraxacum sp.
  • Plant 31: Victoria cruziana
  • Plant 30: Lathyrus odoratus
  • Plant 29: Heliconia rostrata
  • Plant 28: Senecio squalidus
  • Plant 27: Paulownia tomentosa
  • Plant 26: Urtica dioica
  • Plant 25: Euphorbia characias
  • Plant 24: Heliamphora nutans
  • Plant 23: Laurus nobilis
  • Plant 22: Tulipa sylvestris
  • Plant 21: Pleurococcus sp.
  • Plant 20: Gleditsia triacanthos
  • Plant 19: Tillandsia usneoides
  • Plant 18: Marchantia polymorpha
  • Plant 17: Daphne mezereum
  • Plant 16: Citrus medica
  • Plant 15: Coffea arabica
  • Plant 14: Gossypium species
  • Plant 13: Stachyurus praecox
  • Plant 12: Encephalartos ferox
  • Plant 11: Aloe vera
  • Plant 10: Araucaria angustifolia
  • Plant 9: Isoetes echinospora
  • Plant 8: Hamamelis virginiana
  • Plant 7: Lithops species
  • Plant 6: Sequoiadendron giganteum
  • Plant 5: Commiphora saxicola
  • Plant 4: Buxus sempervirens
  • Plant 3: Picea abies
  • Plant 2: Cinnamomum verum
  • Plant 1: Taxus baccata

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    The data and images available on this site may only be used for scientific purposes. They may not be sold or used for commercial purposes. All images are copyright of the University of Oxford, unless otherwise indicated.

    The specimens at the Oxford herbaria and the living collections of the Oxford Botanic Garden and Oxford University Herbaria are being digitized using BRAHMS.


    Dr Alison Foster (

    Dr Stephen Harris (

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