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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Plant of the Month (March) : Canyon Silktassel – Garrya veatchii

Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii): 4 year old plant, Mother Nature's Garden of Health

By March, Southern California gardens are greening up and plants are beginning to flower.  We’ve discussed a number of March bloomers over the years.  But the Canyon Silktassel (Garrya veatchii) in Mother Nature’s Garden of Health is finally large enough to bloom; so we’re featuring it as our plant of the month. The scientific name is pronounced: GARE-ee-uh   VEECH-ee-eye.

Canyon silktassel belongs to the family Garryaceae (the Silktassel family). This small family includes but two genera: Garrya and the Asian Acuba (note: some taxonomists place Acuba in a separate family).  Of the 15 or 16 species of Garrya, six are native to California, most with ranges predominantly in Northern California.  The most common species grown in gardens is the northern coastal Garrya elliptica (Wavyleaf silktassel).  There are several well-known cultivars of this species.  

Several Garryas extend south into the mountains and foothills of Southern California. Garrya flavescens (Ashy silktassel) grows in the San Gabriel Mountains and Garrya fremontii (Fremont’s silktassel) in the mountains of Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego Counties. But of all the California species, Garrya veatchii has the most southerly distribution, typically ranging from San Luis Obispo County to northern Baja California, Mexico. The Canyon silktassel can still be seen in the Transverse and Coastal Ranges of Southern California (including the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains of Los Angeles County).

Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii): mature plant

Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii): foliage
Garrya veatchii grows on dry slopes below about 6000 ft. (1759 m.) in the chaparral and central/southern oak woodland plant communities.  It’s a tough, evergreen plant, often found growing with scrub oaks, Chamise (Adenostema), Threeleaf sumac (Rhus trilobata) and California brickelbush.  It grows as a multi-trunk woody shrub or small tree, ranging in size from 4 to 8 ft. (1.2 to 2.5 m.) tall and about as wide.  The bark is red-brown when young, becoming gray with age. Plants are slow-growing until established (3-4 years) then have a medium growth rate.

Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii): leaf

Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii): leaf (back)
The leaves are one of the best ways to distinguish between the Canyon and Wavyleaf silktassels.  The leaves of Garrya veatchii are simple, evergreen, up to 3 inches (3-9 cm) long  and leathery.  The leaf shape is elliptical or lanceolate (somewhat lance-shaped).  The upper surface is waxy, shiny and medium to dark green; the under surface white with dense hairs.  The leaf margins are straight, unlike the distinctly wavy margins of the Wavyleaf silktassel.  The leaves become darker with age; their margins sometimes roll under in dry conditions.

Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii): emerging flowers

Silktassels are planted in gardens primarily for their unique and picturesque flowers.  Plants generally bloom in winter or very early spring – January to March or April.  The flowers themselves are small and cream or pink-tinged.  But they grow along dangling catkins that are 2-5 inches (5-12 cm) long – lovely in a mature plant.  Plants are dioecious (separate male and female plants) and the males have the longer, showier catkins.  There’s really nothing like a flowering silktassel; a mature plant will stop people in their tracks, wondering what that interesting shrub is.   The dried bracts remain on the plant for several months, prolonging the show.

Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii): flowering plant
Female plants produce small, egg-shaped fruits if flowers are pollinated.  We’ve got just one plant (sex as yet undetermined); like most gardeners, we’ll never see any fruits.  The plants are wind pollinated.   For pictures of the fruits see references 1-3, below.

Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii): development in Mother Nature's Garden of Health
In nature, Canyon silktassel grows in full sun or in some shade.  In hot gardens away from the coast we recommend light shade or afternoon shade.  In our garden of Health we’re growing our plant on the north side of a tall wall.  It gets plenty of morning sun and seems to be doing fine.  While silktassels like well-drained soils, ours appears to be fine in a clay-loam.   So any soil other than one with poor drainage will likely work. 

Garrya veatchii tolerates heat, air pollution, dry soils and seaside conditions.  It’s probably a better choice than Garrya elliptica in most Southern California gardens. Canyon silktassel is quite drought tolerant once established.  We planted ours in 2014.  We’ve been watering it 1-2 times a month (deep watering) in dry times.  This summer we’ll probably just water once a month through August or early September.  It’s important to let soils dry out between watering to prevent root fungal diseases.   We’ll play it by ear and update this post if we need to.

Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii): pruning to espalier on a wall.
Garrya veatchii is often grown as an evergreen shrub, foundation plant or accent.  It can also be used in hedges and hedgerows. Its dark foliage makes a good background for more brightly colored perennials or shrubs with gray-green foliage.  It also makes a wonderful and easy espalier along a wall or fence (see above).   We’re hoping that this will be the year when our silktassel really takes off.  We’re tired of the cinder block wall and look forward to seeing it covered in green!

While not attracting pollinators, mature plants provide good cover for birds and small animals.  The fruits are eaten by birds.   And in the wilds, the foliage is occasionally eaten by larger herbivores (like deer, Bighorn sheep).

The fruits of Garrya species are used to make gray to black natural dyes. The hard wood is sometimes used for carving. And silktassels have a history of medicinal use.  A decoction of leaves is used externally to relive pain from cuts, sores and minor wounds.  The leaves are very bitter and leaf decoctions have also been used as a quinine substitute, especially to lower fevers.  Tinctures are also occasionally used to relax smooth muscle cramps and spasms.   The plant should not be used by pregnant women, as it is thought to induce spontaneous abortion. And as always, medicinals should only be used under the supervision of a health practitioner.   See references 4-6 for more on medicinal uses and precautions.

We hope our discussion and photos will entice you into trying Canyon silktassel in your own garden.  It’s a nice, fairly carefree shrub to grow.  It’s evergreen, with simple dark leaves that provide a nice background.  It’s a useful plant – and one that can be magnificent as an espalier.  We suggest it’s worth a try!

Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii): fabulous flowers!

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html

6.       Moore, Michael: Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com



  1. can you do a post on how you espalier?

  2. I always look for and appreciate your blog posts. I tried G. elliptica a few years ago without long term success, but now I am interested in trying again with G. veatchii.

  3. I'll do one sometime this year. Thanks for asking. Espalier is a great way to use some of our larger natives and edible trees in small spaces.