Some plants form the backbone of our gardens and are never noticed or exclaimed over by visitors. Then there are the plants that elicit "oohs" and "aahs," along with lots of admiring discussion, and finally a request for a nursery name.
The plant in my garden that fulfills that starring roll is Syneileisis aconitifolia. Or "Shredded Umbrella Leaf" as the folks at the Flower Factory in Stoughton call it. At Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend, WA, they call it "Tattered Umbrella," a description that becomes clear when you see an image of this plant.
In their on-line catalog Far Reaches goes on to say, "Beats the botanical name. A grand foliage plant with silken gray cones of new growth pushing from the earth in spring like improbable fungi and expanding to rounded leaves so deeply incised as to appear shredded. Way cool which is good as the flowers are nicht so gut."
It's true. This is a dramatic plant but the drama comes from its deeply divided leaves which are dinner-plate size. The flowers sway at the top of tall stems with a slight pinkish tint but more often than not, I cut them off so as not to distract from the foliage. I bought my plant in 2011 from Plant Delights Nursery who said to expect a decent sized clump as the rhizomes slowly spread to two feet wide in five years.
Also true — except that it's two feet wide where the stems emerge from the ground and a little more than three feet wide at the top where the gorgeous leaves have spread out into an impressive plant. The leaves top out at two feet high while the flower stems go up another two feet. Most sources say that Syneilesis should have light shade and that's where I planted mine until the trees that shaded it came down in the winter of 2012-13.
Now it's growing in almost full sun and tends to sulk a bit at noon, but it perks up again quickly as the day goes on. It's also growing in a spot with fairly rich, moist and well-drained soil just as the plant requires. Everything I've read says Syneileisis aconitifolia is drought tolerant once established and I don't baby it or ever give it extra watering. It is suitable for Zones 4-8.
For such a showy plant Syneileisis aconitifolia is virtually maintenance-free. Its slow but steady growth suggests that it could colonize an area in a large garden if left to its own devices, a perfect characteristic for gardeners like me who are trying to reduce our work load.
S. palmata 'Kikko' growing where I thought I had dug it all out. The variegation is very clear in the new leaves.
Flower Factory sells Syneilesis aconitifolia for about $12, compared to $16.00 (plus shipping) at Far Reaches Farm where they also carry two other versions of this plant: Syneilesis palmata and Syneilesis x hybrida which is a cross between S. aconitifolia and S. palmata.
I am also growing S. palmata 'Kikko' which I got from PDN for a rather large chunk of change. Its leaves emerge nicely patterned (above) but that characteristic fades as the growing season goes along (below). To my frustration, it then becomes just an expensive background plant without the long-term beauty of S. aconitifolia's leaves.
The same S. palmata 'Kikko' seedlings (above) a few months later when the leaf patterning has almost entirely disappeared.
This is what the mature leaf of Kikko looks like: Attractive but kind of blah without that early season patterning. I'll keep Kikko in my garden but I'll do more research before I spend so much again on a plant that doesn't live up to its hype.
Note: A version of this text appeared under my byline in the September newsletter of the Wisconsin Hardy Plant Society.