PLANT OF THE WEEK #25: Metapanax delavayi

Metapanax delavayi is one of my favourite members of one of my favourite families, the Araliaceae. As long as one is prepared to overlook common ivy’s (Hedera helix) propensity to be a little weedy (which is almost always a case of improper management rather than nature), as far as I’m concerned, the Araliaceae can do no wrong. Some genera are very familiar, such as Fatsia and the aforementioned ivies. However, many other very worthy garden subjects hail from this family.

Metapanax is a genus of two species. Both of them are named after French missionaries who worked in China in the 19th century; Fathers Jean-Marie Delavay and Armand David. These men have so many choice plants named after them that it might be possible to make a garden using their namesakes alone. Think: Davidia involucrata, Clematis armandii, Viburnum davidii, Paeonia delavayi, Magnolia delavayi, etc. 

Although the two Metapanax species were described to western science in the 19th century, they have only been in circulation in horticulture for a few decades, and are still not well known. This is a mystery to me, as Metapanax delavayi has to be one of the most versatile and elegant shrubs I know, and I consider it essential in my garden designs.

Imagine a shrub with glossy, five- to seven-fingered, leathery leaves of a colour best described as British Racing Green. Now imagine those leaves all oriented in the same direction, neatly shingled in layers, giving a cascading, bamboo-like quality. In autumn, each branch tip puts out an umbel of tiny cream-green flowers, typical of the Araliaceae, though less coarse than many of its cousins. It’s not a bright display, but is nevertheless welcome at that time of year.

Metapanax delavayi is very neat and tidy in habit. Its main stems are bolt upright. The side branches lean outwards before heading upwards again at the tip, so that it is both erect, and spreading. Overall, it has a bamboo-like quality, being quite tight at the base, with a more voluminous feel at the top where the neatly arranged foliage cascades over itself in clouds of dark green. My own specimen seems to have topped out at around 3m tall and wide, a useful size for even small gardens. 

Metapanax delavayi looks immaculate fifty-two weeks of the year. Well, fifty-one. It does have a period lasting about a week in late spring when it looks slightly disheveled as it sheds the previous year’s foliage, and simultaneously grows a fresh batch. However, as there are plenty of other distractions in the garden at that time of year, I allow my Metapanax a week off from looking absolutely perfect at all times. 

With its dark, holly-green foliage, Metapanax makes the ideal backdrop for paler foliage colours. I have planted mine alongside its variegated deciduous cousin, Aralia elata ‘Silver Umbrella’, and the frothy, apple green bamboo Fargesia rufa; and in front, Acer palmatum ‘Mikawa Yatsubusa’. The quartet has its peak in autumn, when the two araliaceous plants flower – the Metapanax with its cream-green umbels, and the Aralia with spires of cream-then-pink fluff – while the Acer gradually turns orange after passing through every shade of yellow and red. In winter, the Metapanax once again provides a backdrop for the bare frames of these two plants. Stout spiky clubs in the case of the Aralia, and sinuous, jade-green twigs in the case of the Acer. It’s all very textural.

The reason I consider Metapanax essential is that it not only grows, but looks neat as a pin, in the difficult company of eucalyptus trees. My own plant grows on the south side of a row of Omeo gums, where it is in the high shade of those trees for most of the year, except for a blast of late afternoon sun during the summertime. It receives the occasional water before the hottest days of summer, but I honestly don’t think it would care if it didn’t. It has remained well clothed in foliage down to the ground throughout the hottest summers, coldest winters and driest years on record. 

In client’s gardens I have used it almost as a hedge, planted hard against a wall, where it can be clipped to form part of the architecture, and in woodland gardens where it lends a lush, jungly feel without demanding jungle-grade irrigation. 

In common with the other plants I have written profiles for in the Plant of the Week series so far, Metapanax delavayi is difficult to source. Perhaps it’s because so much of our garden literature comes from Great Britain, where this plant is still not widely grown, that there is not yet the demand for this reliable, hardworking plant. If you want to see some mature specimens, there are some absolute beauties at the Royal Botanical Gardens Melbourne. If you can track down your own plant, you owe it to yourself to give it a go.

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  1. How does this plant (Metapanax delavayi) for in the frosts in Central Victoria? Shade and dry under Eucalypts.

    1. That’s exactly where mine is growing: Central Victoria in dry shade under eucalypts. Depending on how dry the site is, and how much shade (more is better in hotter areas), you might need to give it some summer water. As for frost, it experienced -7.3C at my place earlier in winter without batting an eyelid. It will take anything Australia can throw at it.

  2. You have got me interested now Simon will go on a hunt for it!

    1. Hurrah! Please do!

  3. Looks fantastic thank you for all the terrific information. The search is on…

  4. I have a growing fascination for, and dedication to, shrubs of this cane-like growth. Not only are they self-renewing to a large extent, most of them are relatively predictable in ultimate height, which can’t be said of virtually any traditionally branching, primarily tip-growing shrub.
    We need access to this Simon!! We’ve gotta get some nurseries on board.

  5. Oh, and I love that use of the term ‘shingled’ regarding the foliage. It’s the perfect description. (Though, now I come to think of it, my wife, who had shingles during the first Covid lockdown, might have a different reaction. My YouTuber son wanted to make a music video ‘All the Shingle Ladies’)

  6. This is what I really like about this blog – I am being introduced to plant varieties that I have never heard of or knew of their existence! When we can travel to the Botanic gardens will look out for it – it sounds like a really useful plant providing interest when the perennials have been cut back and things can look a bit bare. A solid, reliable lady-in-waiting while the showy princess plants come and go!

    1. Exactly right, Irene. Not every plant can be a superstar. We need solid support acts, too. This is one such plant.

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