I was recently given a gift of a shrub. It is a plant I have long admired but was nervous about buying because it needs shelter and a soil rich in humus – which I can’t provide. I am still sticking to plants I know are tough as old boots to avoid disappointments.
But here I am with a young Edgeworthia chrysantha and I need to make some decisions. It is related to daphnes (which makes me nervous in itself) and is in the Thymeliaceae. It differs from daphnes, botanically, because of the shape of the stigma but, like them, has strange, four-petalled flowers with no sepals – so just one row of ‘floral parts’. The flowers are tubular and covered in silky hairs that, in bud, are sometimes said to resemble mouse toes, but in dense heads of dozens of buds, so from some pretty monstrous mouse!
The flower clusters form in autumn and nod all winter until they start to face sideways in early spring and the buds open. They are bright, golden yellow when they open but fade to cream as they age. Each cluster thus has darker flowers in the centre and paler blooms around the edge of the domed clusters. What photos can’t show is the rich, honey scent of the flowers. It is a real bonus and adds to the value of the plant.
It needs a moist, well-drained soil – yes that again – and plenty of humus in the soil. I can just about manage the latter, with some work, but it also needs shelter from winds – the summer leaves are rather long and large – and it is not the hardiest of shrubs. Some sources say it will not tolerate frost, which is too pessimistic, others that it can handle -5c without problems. Old references say it is not hardy at Kew but because it needs shelter from hot sun (which is not going to be an issue here) it may be that the summer heat and dryness at Kew is the real problem.
It is usually seen at its best in dappled shade.
For present my plant is beside the house while I decide where to risk it although I am tempted to put it in a bigger pot for a year until I decide on the right spot, putting it in a slightly bigger pot with lime-free John Innes. I am conflicted. In time this shrub should reach about 1.5m high and wide but it is quite slow.
Edgeworthia is a monotypic genus if you agree that E. papyrifera is the same plant and not distinct. It is native to China but has long been grown in Japan to manufacture paper (from the bark) especially for bank notes. One infamous feature of the plant is that the twigs are very flexible and can be plaited or tied into knots- not that I will be doing that for a while.
It was introduced into the UK in 1845 and has an Irish connection. The genus is named after Michael Pakenham Edgeworth (1812-1881), an Irish-born botanist although it may have been after his half sister Maria Edgeworth (a novelist) – it is difficult to know although it makes sense to name a plant after a botanist. He worked in India for the Indian Civil Service from 1831 to 1881 and although he may have discovered it I am not sure about that. Other plants are named after him, such as Primula edgeworthii which after some digging seems to have been discovered by him in the Himalaya, though it seems to have been renamed as P. nana now.
He was born in 1812 in Edgeworthtown, Co Longford and was one of 24 children! Fortunately there were actually four wives to share the child bearing and Michael was a son of the fourth wife. I am not sure what the first three wives died of (if they did die rather than being divorced,) but I assume it was exhaustion!. Michael retired to London but died on the isle of Eigg and not on the 1,659 acre estate in Longford! Edgeworthtown is also known as Mostrim, from Meathas Troim which means ‘frontier of the elder tree’ and it is a town near the boundary with West Meath and yes, the town is named after the family not the other way round.