As leaves keep falling from the branches and nights get colder we appreciate evergreens more and although there are lots to choose from I think I would have to say my favourite is Fatsia japonica. There are lots of reasons, but one is almost certainly because it was one of the first plants that made me go ‘WOW’. In the garden where I did a Sunday morning gardening job at school there was a huge plant, a specimen in a lawn, that formed a perfect dome with dozens of stems, about 3m high and 5m across. Being in full sun it was rather bleached and the leaves were always rather pale green but it was healthy and flowered and fruited profusely. This shows just how adaptable it can be: it is usually planted in part shade or shade and is one of the most tolerant shrubs.
As the name suggests, Fatsia japonica comes from Japan. It is named for the old Japanese word fatsi, meaning ‘eight’, a reference to the eight lobes or fingers on the leaves apparently, though this feature is far from stable. It is closely related to ivy, something that is not very obvious until it flowers and then the balls of small, starry flowers reveal the relationship and its place in Araliaceae. Like ivy (Hedera helix), it blooms in autumn, making it a great plant for late insects and brings a pretty dramatic feature to the garden. If you are lucky the flowers are followed by black berries which weigh down the flower stems till birds strip them. Flowering at the same time as ivy it is hardly a surprise that the two have hybridised and the offspring is called x fatshedera, a bigeneric hybrid.
So what DO you get when you cross a stout, large-leaved shrub with a small-leaved climber? A rather uncomfortable plant that doesn’t quite know what to do. There are pretty, variegated forms of xFatshedera but the poor creature is rambling and can’t hold itself upright and can’t really cling to walls either. It is best as a small plant on the windowsill and I have never seen it or grown it outside as a handsome plant. It always writhes around on the ground or in a tangle of tortured stems.
Fatsia itself is a sparsely branched, stout shrub that can be grown in containers (I have two here and will take a photo to add soon) or the soil and outside or in the home. Although fatsia does not have the shape-shifting talents of ivy, with climbing, juvenile growth and self-supporting adult stems, it does look very different when you grow it in the home rather than outside. Outdoors the leaves have rounded lobes and are thick and rubbery. In the home the leaves tend to be more angular and much thinner in texture. It will grow for a while in the home, surviving best in a light, cool room but it too often succumbs to red spider mite and, since this is almost impossible to control, it is then time to plant it outside where the fatsia will thrive and red spider mites will die or struggle (in the UK and Ireland).
When you buy plants they are often grown from seed and there is a cluster of seedlings in the pot. It is always best to pull out the weakest, leaving three per pot so they are not overcrowded and the remaining plants have a better chance to grow.
The plant has a bit of a reputation for being tender but it is usually regarded as hardy down to -15c. A sunny spot will encourage flowering but it is usually more beautiful when grown in light shade so the leaves are dark green. It is a handsome, architectural plant and gives character to a woodland garden and smartens up an urban plot. In fact I think it looks best when planted as the main ingredient in a town or city garden where its bold leaves can hold their own against the harsh lines of buildings and scream to be partnered with bamboos, clipped box and an underplanting of bergenia. Oh, and flower arrangers love the leaves!