Garrya elliptica Lindl. ex Dougl. (Garryaceae)


Silk tassle bush

Drake's illustration of Garrya elliptica from Edwards' Botanical Register (1835; t.1686). Developing male catkins of Garrya elliptica.

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.

Further reading

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