Fatsia japonica – bold leaves (and flowers) for a shady corner




Fatsia japonica, in flower – big, bold shiny leaves and sputnik satellites of green flower. A very useful plant for a shady spot in the garden, providing a luxuriousness that is rare in these difficult conditions.

Helen Yemm, writing in the Telegraph – is a fan –

How to grow: Fatsia japonica

Helen Yemm loves this plant with leaves like vast outstretched hands

THERE is nothing as comfortable as an old hat. And this particular old hat – Fatsia japonica – was a favourite in difficult corners of many an urban and suburban garden before the concept of “architectural” plants was even a glint in some smart designer’s eye.

The list of plants that will grow in difficult conditions is frustratingly short. This tough evergreen with shiny, leathery leaves is one of the best on that brief list, vying with bergenia for having the largest and most dramatic leaves of evergreen plants that are hardy here. There is a slightly less tough and less common variegated form (F. japonica ‘Variegata’), which has cream tips to its leaves and is sold as an indoor plant.

Fatsia japonica is a native of the coastal woodlands of Japan and South Korea and was introduced into this country in the first part of the 19th century. It is often erroneously referred to as the castor-oil plant, the proper name of the unrelated Ricinus communis.

You either love fatsia or hate it – and I love it. In the days before I even dreamt of being a gardener, I used to look down, from four floors up, on to a group of wide-spreading plants. In the arid, dark well between the right-angled walls of a 1930s London block of flats, their leaves flattened out towards the limited, slanting sunlight, they created beguiling and dramatic shadows. I have been a devotee ever since. There is something comforting about those huge, indestructible, palmately lobed leaves, like vast outstretched, capable hands.

Fatsia japonica is too often seen only as a bright-foliage indoor plant. As such, it does well – it is trouble free, shiny and static, the mainstay of many an artificial-looking foyer display. Fatsia japonica comes into its own outside, where the leaves darken and weather to an thicker texture. As a bonus, older plants will produce strange, other-worldly looking, compound umbels of creamy-white flowers which seem, mysteriously, to attract hosts of lazy wasps in late autumn. Sooty-purple seedheads follow, if you are lucky.

Growing tips

While Fatsia japonica is not completely hardy everywhere in Britain, given a degree of shelter it is remarkably unfussy. Happiest in heavy soil, it will grow well in a variety of soils. It can cope with little or no direct sunlight, and is an excellent choice for that near-sunless corner in a typical urban or suburban garden.

Where root competition is fierce, fatsia will grow happily in a large container. A loam-based compost, such as John Innes no 3, with a little added organic matter suits it well.

Even if neglected, fatsia is a forgiving plant, but growth will be more vigorous in fertile soil with a regular supply of water. It will not, however, perform well if it is asked to tolerate scorching from unrelenting hot sunshine, or from icy, easterly winter winds.

In its variegated form, fatsia is said to be less hardy. I have, however, had a specimen growing against a wall in deep shade in a vast Chinese egg-preserving pot for 10 years without mishap and with little attention. It even survived the move from sheltered-town to more-exposed country garden.

All evergreens have an “autumn” – a period when they off-load their old leaves and, with a large-leafed plant such as fatsia, this can be alarming. From mid to late summer, the lower leaves droop, turn bright yellow and may have to be encouraged to drop off to maintain the plant’s good looks. New leaves and buds will have been produced.

As the plants age, older stems may become gaunt and bare. As new shoots appear from the base, all that is needed is the occasional removal of unsightly branches. This is best done in winter.

As a houseplant, the leaves of F. japonica – especially those of variegated plants – are less robust and cannot tolerate direct midday sun. Plants should be fed monthly in the growing season and watered sparingly in winter.

Specimens from flower or conservatory-plant shops will need a lengthy period of acclimatisation if they are to be grown outdoors. Buy those intended for outdoor planting from garden centres and nurseries.

Good companions

Fatsia looks at its best against stone or brickwork, as a specimen on its own. However, as the fashion for planting tropical gardens takes hold, this plant is worth remembering as a backdrop to other exotica, such as cannas and crocosmias.

It sits well with bamboos and stately grasses, such as the horizontally striped Miscanthus zebrinus. It will always be a reliable workhorse, planted with contrasting evergreens to form a nearly permanent screen in light shade. Try it with Eleagnus ‘Limelight’, or Pittosporum ‘Silver Queen’, or even Choisya ternata. There is room for more than one old hat in most gardens.

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