Why it's good to spend £50 on a plant!

One of the most impressive plants around must be Tetrapanax papyrifer. Growing quickly to considerable heights in an ideal location, the huge leaves are only really matched by Gunnera manicata (Giant Rhubarb) for their size and presence.
There are, of course, some down sides to this plant. Aside from it's height, some Tetrapanax papyrifer clones spread outwards, frequently producing suckers some distance from the main plant. Thus they really need space! Sadly Tetrapanax seems to largely resent being in a pot, so that's out of the question (certainly as a long term option), so find a good spot in the garden and let it grow! Also it is a little touchy with frosts. There are plants of this in Gloucestershire and North Wales as well as here in Cornwall, but the further north you go the less likely it is to really thrive. However, plants take -5degC without serious harm here in Cornwall, and so long as you protect the new leaves in spring from frost you should have a chance in slightly colder spots. I have heard of plants being cut back to the ground by a particularly sharp frost and coming back from ground level.

The 'inner beauty' of Tetrapanax! The leaves are held by the stem in a very architectural way (top)! The new leaf thrusts skyward (lower). Note on both pictures the downy stems on the new growth- this is largely (but not totally) lost as the leaf develops. The leaves themselves are soft and slightly felty.

So all in all Tetrapanax papyrifer can be classed as one hell of an impressive plant. I'm sure it would make a talking point in your garden, so here are a few pointers:

Give it a spacious site to occupy. Why not plant other things around it to start off with and just move them as the plant develops?

Make sure the soil isn't too dry (otherwise it will never thrive).

Because it has such big leaves this plant does not like strong winds. OK a bit of damage as the year rolls on is to be expected, but you don't want your prize plant being shredded do you?!

Watch out for those exceptionally cold nights- if in doubt pack the stem with straw or similar and wrap in sacking (NOT PLASTIC SACKS OR BUBBLE WRAP!) to keep the frost away. This has not proved necessary here in the South West though, and we had one night of -12degC.....

Very important- feel smug. This plant is distinctive and impressive, and is EXTREMELY unlikely to ever appear in your local garden centre. If it does, let me know which garden centre it is! Anyone who sees it will ask about it, and will want one; you have one, they don't!

Tetrapanax papyrifer as part of a tropical border with Paulownia tomentosa (left), red leaf Phormiums, a Hedychium and lilies. How I managed to take this picture and not notice the plastic pot in the foreground is beyond me!

So why is it worth spending money on this? Quite frankly by now most of you have reached for the RHS Plantfinder and checked where you can buy one. Unfortunately they can be less than keen to be propagated. OK yes they produce suckers, but the little blighters don't put out root for some time after the sucker has emerged. Instead they remain attached to the parent plant. If you break the runner, you kill the offset. Nurseries are trying various techniques to propagate them but it is still a long and tedious process, often with many fatalities (with plants, not nurserymen!). Thus demand exceeds supply. Don't buy a small plant- you want something showing reasonable vigour at the time of purchase, and make sure you can accommodate it. After that, I'm afraid you just have to bite the bullet.

Now a word on clones (and many thanks to Bleddyn Wynn-Jones from Crug Farm for his guidance): the RHS Plantfinder lists four clones of Tetrapanax; papyrifer, papyrifer 'Empress', papyrifer 'Rex' and papyrifer 'Steroidal Giant'. Whilst many places list T. papyrifera it is possible, maybe even likely, that they are in fact growing T. papyrifera 'Rex'. 'Rex' is a clone prone to suckering but the suckers are, if you know what you are doing, reasonably straightforward to grow on. They do, however, take a little while to establish and become saleable in my experience. Bleddyn's clone T. p. 'Empress' is a different story- a nice big tree forming clone but with no signs of suckers. This is probably a much better clone for the 'normal' garden, but it is far from common! T. p. 'Steroidal Giant' is a new clone from the US and from Bleddyn's description it sounds like a monster! Forming clumps twice the size of 'Rex' this is unlikely to be a popular plant for the small garden but would certainly make a considerable impact in a large planting, say in a public park.