We all wait in anticipation for the first tulip, the first snowdrop or the first daffodil but many plants will already be flowering, advertising their presence with scent and colour. Viburnum, Lonicera, and Sarcococca have all been in flower since well before Christmas. One of the more subtle players are the Garryas. With green, leathery, puckered foliage they’re forgotten for most of the year, but come January their inflorescences start to elongate until their common name, the silk tassel bush, becomes self explanatory. These silver tassels smother the bush and being a cool time of year they persist well into April.
We have a free standing specimen of nearly eight feet tall at Genus HQ. Ours is planted in a semi shaded spot at the side of the copse but they can make excellent wall shrubs if tied on to wires as they grow. Overgrown or neglected specimens can be pruned hard, despite RHS advice to the contrary, and depending on timing the worst thing that may happen is a loss of flowers in the first year after pruning.
If you want to choose a Garrya elliptica for your borders or garden wall ‘James Roof’ is the variety most commonly offered. Other varieties worth tracking down are ‘Glasnevin Wine’ sporting red stems and red tinted flower tassels, and ‘Pat Ballard’ who has particularly long catkins of over 30cm in grey and red - it does though appear to be very hard to track down in the UK.
With thirteen species of Garrya native to countries such as the United States, the West indies, and central America, a trip to see the national collection in Dublin in Ireland is tempting but perhaps a bit too far for many. Whatever your location, an afternoon drive around towns and villages on a Sunday afternoon in January or February will soon give you the opportunity to spot several examples, enabling you to judge for yourself their suitability for your own garden. If you can include a visit to a country pub with a roaring fire even the most ardent non-gardener can be tempted to join in for a spot of back-seat botanising.