A late winter field trip, in my backyard again. This is a plant that we inherited when we moved in, some 35 years ago. I can’t believe it’s been that long.
It is a shrubby plant that is considered a species of the very interesting “Aralia” family, the Araliaceae.
This family (which is rather closely related to the carrot family, Apiaceae) is widely distributed around the world, and contains a good many genera. Most of these are at least partially woody, and include English ivy, rice-paper plant, your living room Schefflera, and devil’s walking stick.
Of the herbaceous species, perhaps the most well-known is ginseng, much valued for its traditionally esteemed medicinal qualities. One ginseng species is American, Panax quinquefolius, which grows in rich forests in the Appalachians. Two others occur in eastern Asia.
All three species have figured very heavily in traditional medicines, and for a variety of ailments. Despite this, there is little evidence that ginseng has verifiable medicinal properties.
Nevertheless, it is seriously threatened by overharvesting in America, and that has led to its being endangered. There are strict rules about its legal harvest from the wild, and thus a sort of underground industry has developed in gathering it illegally. But I have digressed in a very “Araliacious” way.
In my backyard, our Mystery Plant produces very handsome dark, shiny leaves, prominently lobed, and the lobes have a few shallow teeth on their margins.
Each leaf has a long stalk, and they stay on the plant essentially all year long. Flowers produced are in an elongated branching panicle, secondarily arranged in many small umbels, and this belies our Mystery Plant’s similarity to things in the carrot family. Recall that an umbel is an arrangement of flowers in which all the flowers’ stalks originate at the same point. Think of blooming Queen-Anne’s Lace, or dill.
Blooming occurs in the autumn, and each flower has five tiny creamy white petals. There will be a few stamens and two short styles.
To me, the flowers are pleasantly fragrant and the hundreds of flowers are irresistible to a variety of pollinators: honeybees, carpenter bees, flies, wasps, beetles and who knows what else.
On a warm fall afternoon the blooming plants are abuzz with activity, and it makes a wonderful garden scene.
Winter comes. The flowers dry up and shrivel, but the young ovaries start to swell into green fruits. As the cold weather wears on, the fruits keep on swelling, and sometimes the whole panicle will get heavy enough to make the whole plant lean over.
As long as it doesn’t get too cold, the fruits slowly darken, and by the end of winter will be black. So here is a plant suitable for the damp shady garden which has wonderful flowers as well as fruits (which are no good to eat, by the way).
If there is a downside to it, it may be that it sheds its dead leaves slowly, at least in my yard. But it’s easy enough to gather them all for your compost pile.
(Answer: “Fatsia,” “Japanese aralia”, Fatsia japonica)