Botanical Wonder

The Birth of Tree Ivy

What do you get when you cross a cow with a lemon? Sour cream. Bad joke, but funny because it just couldn’t happen. In the botanical world, hybrids happen occasionally in nature, usually between closely related species within a single genus. Once humans started fiddling around with growing plants, though, they contributed to a vast and growing number of hybrid plants. Sometimes they were trying to produce more or better crops, sometimes just a new color of an old favorite flower. One seemingly strange hybrid combination between species in two separate genera, though, has resulted in a sturdy ornamental vine called Fatshedera lizei. In one of the more egregious examples of common names taken from the botanical nomenclature, it is sometimes known as fatheaded Lizzie or by the more descriptive name, tree ivy.

One parent is the lovely, tropical-looking shrub called Fatsia japonica (old names such as ­Aralia sieboldii or A. japonica may still circulate, too). Also known as Japanese aralia, its glossy green leaves are deeply divided, resembling a maple on steroids, and can be more than a foot wide. This native of eastern Asia thrives in cool shady spots and yet gives that air of having come from the warmest rain forest. Its clusters of small white flowers occur in the fall and winter and are followed by small, shiny black fruits (be aware that these are poisonous if ingested). Tucked into the ground or a container, it is a great choice for that shaded entryway or patio and is sturdy enough to withstand the splashings from a swimming pool. It may eventually reach five to eight feet, but can be kept lower with judicious pruning. In fact there is a selection that remains smaller called ‘Moseri.’ Besides the common dark green variety, there is also one that sports golden yellow or creamy white edges on its leaves and is simply known as ‘Variegata.’

It’s actually the other parent that might startle you: English ivy (Hedera helix). This ubiquitous vine is most often grown as a groundcover or on a fence for screening. Though there are many selections that have better manners, the species is vigorous to invasive and requires continual vigilance to keep it out of areas where it could smother tender plants or off of buildings or structures where it is unwanted. But it happens to be in the same family as Japanese aralia and, if left in one place long enough, will make a shrubbier top growth that supports clusters of white flowers that are quite similar. So similar, that hybridization between the two genera was possible. In nature, these two plants would never have had the chance to meet, much less breed, but specimens of them were both included in the stock of the Lizé Frères nursery in Nantes, France in the early 1900s. From this one experiment, which is said to have never been repeated, have come the Fatshedera plants available today.

The resultant offspring is intermediate between its parents in most of its characters. It is a woody vine with thicker stems than ivy has and lobed leaves definitely bigger than ivy, but only about half the size of those of Japanese aralia. They are lobed more deeply than ivy, but not as much as aralia. It is adaptable enough that you can train it as a vine, or espalier it on a sturdy structure, or keep it pinched back to promote branching for a shrubby look. As a container plant, the shrub option is probably the best one. It could even be used as a big bold groundcover. If it should get out of hand in any situation, cut it clear to the ground and begin again with fresh sprouts from the base of the plant. Fatshedera likes full shade during the hottest hours and seasons in inland sites, but along the coast can thrive in some sun. Just like its parents, there is even a variegated selection with white-bordered leaves. Since it does so well in the shade, it makes a great houseplant, too. Its bold foliage will grace any corner. Don’t put it in the darkest one, or it will probably get too leggy, and remember to turn the pot now and then so it doesn’t grow only on one side.

So, if you are looking for an easy-to-grow and exotic-looking plant for the shade, this botanical wonder might be just the ticket. And it makes for a great story, too.

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