In my previous contribution to Plant of the Week, I wrote about Pachystegia insignis, the Marlborough rock daisy. I opined the fact that, although it is a first class garden plant, it is a rather unattractive proposition for nurserymen to propagate, so it rarely makes its way onto the nursery floor. Bupleurum fruticosum, the shrubby hare’s ear, suffers from the same affliction. It is an utterly brilliant evergreen shrub in a garden setting, but it is difficult and slow to propagate from cuttings, and like its relatives the carrot and parsnip, a bit random to germinate from seed.
Wait. What? Carrots and parsnips? Didn’t you say it is a shrub?
I did, and it is both of those things; a shrub and a carrot. Bupleurum is a genus of just under 200 species in the Apiaceae family, mostly annuals and perennials, with just a few woody members. Bupleurum fruticosum is a one of them. ‘Fruticosum’ means ‘shrubby’, though to be more accurate it’s a subshrub, with a woody base, but soft upper growth. It hails from Mediterranean Europe, where it grows in exposed, rocky places, often within sight of the sea. If you’ve ever travelled in the south of France, you’ve almost certainly seen it growing wild, but possibly not really registered it. It’s one of those plants that can look a little unprepossessing in the wild, but completely amazing in a garden context.
Bupleurum fruticosum forms a rounded bun about 1.2m in height and width, with 5cm long, blue-green evergreen leaves arranged neatly around the branches. They have a similar colour and texture to those of eucalyptus, no doubt as an adaptation to coping with dry summer heat. In late summer, each branch terminates in a hemispherical umbel of acid green flowers, similar to those of dill. In many ways, Bupleurum fruticosum gives a similar effect to the Mediterranean eurphorbias, only at the opposite end of the year.
The flowers are petal-less and don’t remain ‘in flower’ for long, but the umbels of developing seeds last for months, gradually darkening from olive green to brown, before finally dropping at the very end of autumn, whereupon the heads dry off to chocolate brown and remain intact all winter, looking very nice above the unchanging foliage.
Shrubby hare’s ear’s only fault is that it does get a little rangy after a year or two, and benefits from a good, hard cut back by two-thirds to keep it tight. Because it’s only a subshrub, this is not heavy or difficult work. If you have a set of power hedge trimmers, it takes no time at all. If you cut it back at the very end of winter/beginning of spring, your Bupleurum won’t be without foliage for very long. Or, like me, you can do it earlier on in winter and have a sphere of leafless twigs to appreciate instead.
This one small shortcoming is outweighed by many positives. Bupleurum fruticosum needs no water whatsoever in southern Australia. It laughs at heat and cold, never gets any kind of pest or disease. It is utterly impervious to heat, and indeed peaks at the hottest time of the year, just when you feel like giving up on the very idea of gardening. All it asks in return is the most exposed position you’ve got, and soil that drains well. Apart from that, it is not fussy. Throw a bit of lime on it from time to time if you remember, as a nod to the limestone cliffs where it grows overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
I grow my Bupleurum straight outside my front door where I can appreciate it, combined with Stipa gigantea, Rosa moyesii ‘Geranium’, Cotinus ‘Grace’ and Miscanthus transmorrisonensis. It is one of the best foils for grasses I know, being almost their exact opposite in texture, but with a very similar colour scheme.
Getting hold of your Bupleurum in the first place will be your problem. Don’t let that discourage you. The more we, as gardeners, create demand for these excellent plants, the more nurseries will be encouraged to supply them.
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