Saturday, March 18, 2017

Tetrapanax in Connecticut

I started writing this blog post about four years ago after I returned from a week of garden touring in Oregon and Washington. For years it's been suspended in the dreaded "draft" status. Given that I have little or nothing to offer on the gardening front right now I figured it might be a good time to resurrect and post this relic.

After drooling over plants on that trip, most of which I would have a snowball's chance in hell of growing in my own garden, I decided I wanted to walk on the wild side and try growing Tetrapanax papyrifer in my central Connecticut garden.

If you follow this blog, you know that I moved last year.  Even though the USDA zone map for Connecticut illustrates that my zone did not change, I suspect that may not be the case.  I commute about 25 miles each way to work now which is relatively close to my old garden stomping grounds and it's always consistently warmer by four to six degrees.

Below are just a few of the plants that caught my eye on that trip.  We always want what we can't have, right? When it comes to plants I'm always on the hunt for something different.

Melianthus major 'Purple Haze' was one of those plants.  Melianthus major can be purchased in some of the better greenhouses as an annual in New England in the spring but I've never seen the cultivar 'Purple Haze'. Two winters in a row I had M. major return in a pot that was stored in my detached, unheated garage.  Maybe there's hope in a cool basement because there is no hope at all outside.

Melianthus major 'Purple Haze' with Imperata cylindrical 'Red Baron' at Far Reaches Farm in Port Washington

A second plant I absolutely lusted after was Lobelia tupa.  Just about every garden we visited featured large, well grown specimens of Lobelia tupa.  My pictures below taken at Linda Cochran's garden and at  Far Reaches Farm in Port Townsend, WA don't do the plant justice.

Linda Cochran places Lobelia tupa on her list of top ten favorite plants.  Far Reaches lists it as zone 8a.  Both Kelly and Sue, at Far Reaches honestly didn't think I had a prayer of overwintering Lobelia tupa in central CT even with protection so I guess I'll just have to admire this one from afar.

Lobelia tupa in Linda Cochran's former garden on Bainbridge Island

Lobelia tupa in the display garden at Far Reaches Farm

A third plant that stopped me in my tracks because I'm a sucker for bold foliage was Tetrapanax papyrifer.  Hmmm, somewhere in my travels I vaguely remember reading that with winter protection, Tetrapanax could be grown successfully in CT.  Louis the Plant Geek grows it in Rhode Island. Rhode Island is not that far away. If Louis could grow it maybe I could too.

Tetrapanax papyrifer in the former garden of Linda Cochran

So in April 2013 I ordered a Tetrapanax from Plant Delights Nursery. Siting it was somewhat of a challenge.  I didn't have any room in my sunny south facing patio garden.  The south facing wall of the shed was the next best thing, but with no foundation and part sun exposure I wasn't hopeful.

All went well the first year except I did not get around to shoring up winter protection until well into winter.

Tetrapanax emerging in May 2014

Despite my botched protection attempt, in late May of 2014 a small unfurling Tetrapanax emerged!  It had died back to the ground over the winter but was returning from the roots. Maybe Louis the Plant Geek was right.

I wasn't encouraged though.  My Tetrapanax was alive but it was acting more like a ground cover than a bold specimen plant. I suspected my garden nemesis, lack of sun was the likely culprit but in my overplanted quarter acre garden I had no better spot.

Tetrapanax in my Connecticut garden in September 2015

Much to my surprise, in July of 2015 it came back again but never grew much more than a about a foot.  In the fall of 2015 I didn't even bother to protect it.  At that point I knew I was moving and I knew a zone pushing plant like Tetrapanax wouldn't take a late season move-especially to a colder location.

Did my poor tetrapanax come back in 2016?  I couldn't tell you.  I moved out of my house in May, closed in July and was so overwhelmed with moving that I didn't even think to look.  I'm going to assume it did though because the 2015-2016 winter was relatively mild..

So what did I learn?

With winter protection and proper siting I believe it's possible to grow a sizable Tetrapanax papyrifer in Connecticut zone 6. The way the schedule is unfolding, I won't have a good spot for one in my current garden until fall.  Fall planting won't work for a borderline plant like Tetrapanax though so realistically I'm looking for a spring 2018 planting.

Fortunately gardeners are patient people and I'm no exception.



  1. I'm testing a Tetrapanax in my SoCal garden now. Of course, the problem here isn't winter cold but rather how much water it's going to need to get it through our hot, dry summers. My plant arrived as a tiny seedling courtesy of Loree (danger garden) back in November and it's currently biding time in a pot until it gains sufficient size to withstand the foraging activities of the local raccoons and skunks. It hasn't grown much but it's still alive!

    1. Even though I know winter cold is the issue, I'm game to try again!

  2. I am glad to hear you're going to try again, and I wish you much success! I'm anxiously waiting to see if my tall (8ft?) Tetrapanax in the front garden lived through our harsh winter. Best case senario they sprout from the top, second best, new growth starts somewhere along the trunks. Worst case, ground zero, back to the base. We shall see!

    Oh and for what it's worth I have had zero success with Lobelia tupa.

    1. Back to the base if likely all I'll ever get here, but if I can get a few feet of growth during the season I'll be happy with that. I'll be curious to see how much if any winter damage you get.

  3. I fear that Tetrapanax might be a tad too happy here, and if I decide to get one it will go in a big pot.

  4. We need people like you to explore the outer limits of a plants zone tolerance! I love that Japanese blood grass.

  5. I just found your blog and we are practically neighbors! You may be interested in Lobelia cardinalis. It is hardy in zones 4-9 and does very well in my Long Island garden. The Japanese Blood Grass also does well in our area (hardy in zones 5-9).

  6. My garden seems to have its own micro-climate that makes winter temperatures colder than they are in the rest of the area. I blame it on the river and the fact that we live in a deep valley. Whenever I think about planting something tender or half-hardy I have to remind myself to consider carefully before I plant. Still it's fun to sometimes push the limits. As you experienced, sometimes it's worth the risk.