'Paper bush' really shines during winter season
by Ellen Goff
If someone set out to design the perfect woody shrub for Southeastern gardens, they would have to exceed the impeccable qualities of Edgeworthia papyrifera first. The so-called "paper bush" creates fascinating interest in every season, but especially in winter months, with its showy, scented flowers. It has become the new must-have plant for even the casual gardener, yet the shrub has been known in the trade for more than 150 years. So why has it taken so long for the spotlight to find it?
Michael Edgeworth brought the paper bush from China to England in the mid-1800s, where it achieved some popularity just in the last 50 years, perhaps due to a warm climate requirement (zones 7 to 9 in the U.S.). Edgeworthia is briefly mentioned in gardening books of the 1930s, and labeled as not hardy except in Southern gardens. This would marginalize the shrub's use for decades.
Even the esteemed Michael Dirr, author, plant researcher and retired University of Georgia professor, admitted that his first introduction to Edgeworthia was on a visit to Georgia's Callaway Gardens in 1980. He waited almost 20 years to add it to his classic 1975 reference, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, in the 1998 edition.
Today, many plantsmen may considered the shrub less desirable as better known species in its fragrant Daphne family, such as the evergreen Daphne odora, but see for yourself. Once you experience the year-round beauty of the Edgeworthia, you'll want more than one. Here's why:
A perfect size — Starting with a sapling, you can have a 4-foot-wide, 5-foot- tall shrub in about five years. A graceful, dome-shaped habit, it grows vigorously as an elegant, single trunk or with multiple stems. In its native environment, paper bush grows along the edge of hillside woodlands and some stream banks. Siting the shrub on an irrigated east- or north-facing slope would be ideal.
Appealing in every season — Characterized by some as having a tropical look, paper bush has narrow 2- by 5-inch oval, dark blue-green leaves with fuzzy, silvery undersides. The heavy Southern humidity has no effect, but be sure to avoid afternoon summer sun. Leaves drop in late fall, except in warmer areas of North Florida, and reveal silvery button-shaped buds that resemble tiny sunflowers on the ends of stout stems about eight weeks before opening.
Contemporary form — Some say its branching habit appears sculptural. The jointed stems are fibrous and have been used to produce high-quality paper pulp. The cinnamon-rust colored bark, patterned with raised leaf scars, can be appreciated only when the leaves have fallen. The stems are highly pliable and can be tied into knots.
Alluring fragrance — The nodding blossoms open in late January, with more than 25 tiny, yellow flowers per head. The surrounding landscape is infused with a warm, rich, lightly sweet scent, similar to winter-blooming Daphne. Never overwhelming or cloying, the fragrance blends well with earthy notes of moist spring soil for an unforgettable experience.
Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She's passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.