I really love this plant. It is at the top of The List (with half a dozen others – not that they know, of course). I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember.
It grew in Mum and Dad’s private garden – the name given to a very secluded and beautiful courtyard off their bedroom. This garden was planned and planted carefully by Mum with mainly Asian plants: persimmon, Nandina, a simple single white Azalea with incredible shape, fishbone Aotoneaster, the obligatory Japanese maple, Japanese anemones and of course Tetrapanax. I used to peer up at its giant exotic leaves against the sky and the light shining through them. It was strange and wondrous and transported you immediately to foreign lands. It is, of course, endemic to Taiwan but grows in many parts of East Asia. It is used, apparently, in Chinese medicine, and the pith from the stems is used to make rice paper or ‘pith paper’ as it is known. It is fascinating to read about this process of production and the uses of this pith paper through history.
In Melbourne, Tetrapanax was widely planted in the gardens of the modernist houses of the 50’s and 60’s (our vanilla brick Modern home was built in ’59). It then seems to have fallen out of favour, or fashion at least.
But I haven’t been entirely truthful yet and told you about its suckering habit – producing the type of suckers that refuse to be easily dug up and potted on. This, I think, is its only slightly troublesome characteristic.
I’ve used Tetrapanax in our front garden in Melbourne – a small courtyard style garden where space is at a premium but canopy is important. This is where ‘TP’ comes into its own – by providing a canopy quickly on thin, beautifully patterned and textured stems.
I photograph it endlessly: its leaves against a blue sky, the extraordinary flowers and the seductive bark of its stems. It is addictive! As a landscape designer I think of it as the perfect entrance plant arching over a front path, providing shade and interest at every level whilst not being greedy for space.
At night our garden entrance ‘up lights’ project the shadowy shapes of its palmate leaves against the concrete facade of the house, like some crazy plant-shadow show. When the weather is wild and windy the show can be quite spectacular!
The flowers appear in early winter as the leaf growth slows and the plant becomes semi deciduous (although this is not a certainty), and is made up of a large panicle of umbels at the end of a long stem. The flowerhead is as exotic as the leaves, and coloured the most sublime, subtle, pale yellow. It attracts a multitude of insects – European bees, native bees, flies and more. As a bee keeper this makes me happy, as the flowers appear when little else is often flowering. They mightn’t feed an entire hive but I know they are doing their bit for bees.
Lastly Tetrapanax seems reasonably indifferent to soil type. It loves moisture if it’s available, but doesn’t seem to suffer if watering is infrequent. It does not fair well in windy positions though – no large-leaved plants do as they are not ‘designed’ with wind in mind. They tear and tatter.
So keep the plants sheltered, keep them reasonably moist, keep them where you can peer up through their extraordinary leaves and KEEP an eye on them suckers.
Fiona Brockhoff is a leading Australian landscape designer. Her distinctly Australian landscapes are characterized by their simplicity, relationship with the architecture and surrounding landscape, and the strength of the planting design.