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Plant Profile: Silk Tassel

While most flowering natives are bedding down for the winter, a little drama can be found in the landscape on Mt. Sutro, some of it on the summit near Rotary Meadow. What drama you ask? Why it’s the Silk Tassel of course (Garrya elliptica). This lovely native is one of the most dramatic winter flowering shrubs in California.

Silk Tassel grows in Chaparral plant communities - Chaparral in Spanish means “short woody vegetation.” It can be found growing with other plants such as Coyote bush and California sagebrush. Silk Tassel’s oval dark evergreen leaves have a leathery texture and a bitter taste. Used by early settlers as a substitute for quinine, its other common name is quinine bush. Garrya is dioecious (dye-eeshus), meaning it has male and female flowers on separate plants. Admittedly, I was surprised to learn that it is the male plant that is spectacular in bloom. Beginning in December and lasting into early spring, long silvery-green catkins, or pendulums hang from the branches. Garrya elliptica was first introduced into cultivation in the U.S. in 1828 by the botanist David Douglas, the same fellow who introduced the Pink Flowering Currant (Ribes sanguineum) described in a previous plant profile. It was named for Nicholas Garry, Secretary of the Hudson’s Bay Co. and sold as a horticultural plant as early as 1860. It is native to the scrublands of the Coast Ranges from southern Oregon to Santa Barbara County. Silk Tassel is reported to have useful medicinal properties, for example, as a pain reliever and antispasmodic for cramps. The Mohave and Kawaiisu Indians use it for stomach cramps and diarrhea. [1] Although it can grow to 24 feet in the wild, Silk Tassel is usually smaller and slow growing in the garden. It is generally deer resistant and the purple fruits of the female plants are attractive to birds. You can find Silk Tassel (Garrya elliptica) right now in the dead of winter in all of uhh…his regalia when little else is blooming. Seems like a great way to grab the limelight for such a dramatic actor!

[1] Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Michael Moore; 1993; p 229.

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