These days, it is hard to distinguish the sky from the ground. The clouds are colorless, but heavy with an unending amount of moisture. Waves of rain and wind are not conducive to garden walks, but during the gray days there is a bit of brightness to be found in the Diablo Ascent Garden with the interesting blooms of the coast silk-tassel or Garrya elliptica ‘James Roof.’
These shrubs are dioecious (plants that have either male or female flowers on them). The coast silk-tassel produces catkins, or elongated clusters of single-sex flowers that usually lack petals. These catkins are made up of tiny cream colored, bell-shaped flowers with a hint of burgundy, which dangle from the branches during the winter months. The male flowers reach about 3 to 12 inches, while the female flowers measure about 2 to 4 inches. Following the flowers are clusters of small purple grapelike fruit. The cream-colored flowers glow against the tough, leathery deep green leaves; they are reminiscent of icicles hanging from trees in winter.
Like many California native plants, the coast silk-tassel is one of the backbones of the winter garden. This medium-to-large shrub can make a great screen or accent specimen in the garden. Established shrubs also can be pruned to a small tree. In its native habitat, the coast silk-tassel can reach heights of 24 feet. It is found growing on dry slopes, and in mixed-evergreen forests below 2,000 feet throughout the coastal ranges from Ventura County to southwestern Oregon.
Known for its abundant number of catkins, the cultivar ‘James Roof’ is named after the former director of the Tilden Botanic Garden. This smaller variety reaches a height of 8 to 10 feet. Another cultivar, ‘Evie’, is even more compact, but the catkins aren’t as dramatic. Flowering varies from year to year, with some years producing an abundance of catkins, while other years are less prolific. Last winter. the catkins at the Gardens at Heather Farm reached about 1 foot during the winter months. This winter’s display looks to be less dramatic.
Summer irrigation for many native shrubs is the key to success of the plant. Several, including the coast silk-tassel, are susceptible to water molds if the drainage is poor. Since many gardens have clay soil and retain water, a deep, infrequent water schedule is recommended. At the Gardens at Heather Farm, the silk-tassel is in full sun on a slope. It is pruned annually to shape the foliage and remove any dead or diseased stems.
— Patrice Hanlon