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

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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