Maryland gleanings

Jim McKenney
Fri, 17 Feb 2012 14:21:45 PST
Jude asked: " which Rohdea do you grow? Are Ruscus and the other similar?" 

The rohdeas I grow are just the plain seed-grown ones - I don't have any of the teratological ones. In our climate this plant is tough as nails - you can dig them and leave them on the ground and years later they will still be alive and growing. And they're easy (I didn't say fast!) from seed. They are so striking and distinctive in the winter garden that for years I didn't know what to do with them. Now that I've seen how handsome thick masses of them are I'm going to plant the seeds systematically under the camellias. 
Are  Danaë  (DAH-nah-ay to me, although a lot of people just call it Danny) and Ruscus similar? I guess it depends on what parts of them you 're looking at. As garden plants, my guess would be that most people would not connect them. Ruscus aculeatus is a hard, spiny plant, unpleasant to touch when it's alive and growing, and dangerously hard and sharp when it's dead and dry. It's definitely something you don't want to step on in your bare feet. Although not woody, they remind me of some of the spiny evergreen barberry bushes. They slowly form mounded hemispheres of what looks like foliage (but are really cladode clad stems). They give the garden a quality of stability because they change so slowly. I really like them a lot, and not just because for a long time I thought they would not grow well here. They do - at least Ruscus aculeatus does. I've also got R. hypoglossum in a cold frame and it grows well and blooms there. The flowers in both of these
 species are minute and greenish yellow. I have not yet seen fruit on R. hypoglossum. The cladodes of R. hypoglossum are much larger than those of R. aculeatus and they are softer. There is another species widely used in the florist trade which has much bigger cladodes on two to three foot stems - that one is probably not hardy here but it's probably grown in southern California. 
Two well-loved writers, Elizabeth Lawrence and Henry Mitchell, wrote enthusiastically about Ruscus. 
From a horticultural perspective, Danaë  is something else again. Seeing it for the first time, most people are clueless. There is no shame in that becasue it really is an anomaly. What they see is a soft, billowing, four foot mound of graceful, glossy "foliage"; if it's autumn, the "foliage" will be spangled with bright orange red marble sized fruit.  I put foliage in quotes because here again what look like leaves are actually cladodes. Some people guess that it's a species of clumping bamboo, others guess that it's some sort of Nandina. The common name, Alexandrian laurel, is no help - it isn't a laurel. If you like to torment people while they are guessing, tell them that it is related to asparagus and that for over a century was placed in the lily family. That won't help them a bit because it does not look like culinary asparagus (although it does have some things in common with some of the south African species of Asparagus) and it certainly
 doesn't suggest a typical lily family plant. You'll have a hard time convincing them that it is not a woody plant (it's not; and the stems are of annual duration and during the winter tend to lie flat on the ground if there is snow). Whereas only the ruscus enthusiast sees beauty in the ruscus (old vernacular name: butcher's broom), most people take an immediate liking to danny. . 
You may very well have seen Danaë without realizing it: it is still commonly used in upscale butcher shops to decorate the meat cases. Ruscus and Danaë both last a long time when cut, and are apt to still be decorative when dry.
So, if it's so great, why doesn't everyone grow it? Part of the reason is that for a long time it was assumed to be a plant for the south only. But the main reason is that both Ruscus and Danaë are achingly slow from seed. The seed has hypogeal germination, and the first year all you see at ground level is a little green scale or fan. The next year a little two or three inch stem arises with a few cladodes. Five or six year old plants might be presentable enough to entice a purchaser. They are like peonies in that they are slow but sure. Once they get to the point where they put up a sheath of four foot stems annually, you will probably be beseiged with requests for "a start" from your garden visitors. "Oh, I'll be glad to dig out a slice". Fat chance! 
Definitely a cool plant - old ones are truly magnificent and grown with camellias convey a moving sense of the halcyon south to me.  
Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, 39.021954º North, 77.052102º West, USDA zone 7
My Virtual Maryland Garden
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin <> 
Webmaster Potomac Lily Society

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