Monday, September 26, 2011

A Showy Phytolacca.

Almost every visitor to the Leaning Oaks garden asks about the identity of this plant. Phytolacca polyandra (also known as Phytolacca clavigera). This is a robust herbaceous perennial from a woody rootstalk. The new growth emerges in the spring a rich wine red and the plant quickly becomes shrublike with terminal racemes of bubble-gum pink flowers.

There are about 35 species of Phytolacca, several are quite coarse looking plants, this is the best species that I have tried. A few years ago I grew some Phytolacca bogotensis from seed, the plants looked similar to P. polyandra, but the racemes were smaller. P. bogotensis proved to be not hardy in our garden, succumbing to the first winter frost.

P. polyandra has proven to be perfectly hardy for our garden and each plant lives for about 4 or 5 years. A few seedlings pop up every year however, and I always have a couple of plants in reserve to continue the show. Some Phytolaccas have proven to be very invasive, so this one warrants careful scrutiny before widespread planting. So far in our dry Saanich Peninsula garden it has proven to be a polite seeder, but folks living in a damper clime should watch this and make sure that it continues to behave itself before totally embracing it.

In the late summer all the stalks deepen in colour to a deep pink and the each branchlet tipped with a shiny, faceted, jet black berry - a startling combination of colour and texture. The berries stay on the plants for several weeks, and then, as if there is some signal, American Robins, Varied and Hermit Thrushes set upon the plants to clean off the berries. Some years the foliage turns bright yellow while the fruit is still on the plant, a very showy combination indeed.

Chinese Chokeberry can be difficult to find, it only occasionally shows up in nurseries. Seed is often for sale at the UBC botanic garden and it germinates readily after a winter outdoors. Fraser's Thimble Farms sometimes has plants for sale. The nursery where I bought our original plant is no longer in business.

Deer have not been an issue with this plant, which is not surprizing given its toxicity. Gardeners with small children should be aware that all parts of the plant are poisonous including the glossy berries. Slugs damage the odd leaf or two, but not enough to be an issue with this plant.

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