Farfugium, oh farfugium
I just love saying “farfugium”. It has such an odd yet intriguing ring to it. My wife thinks I make up botanical names, maybe because I prefer using the Latin names to the common names—which don’t exist for many of my favorite plants, especially bamboos and, well, farfugiums.
|Farfugiums in our woodland garden|
Farfugium is a genus of plants mainly grown for their interesting leaves: some are plain green and giant, some are mottled or speckled, some are wavy or even curly like Italian parsley. Farfugiums are native to Japan and eastern Asia where they grow along stream banks and in moist meadows. They are definitely not drought-tolerant and hence not inherently suited for our Mediterranean climate. However, I’ve found that they do quite well in our water-retentive clay soil—amended with lots of compost—as long as they are protected from the sun. Their environmental requirements are pretty much identical to those of the other plants we have growing in our Asia-inspired shade garden: bamboos, hostas, ferns, astilbes, and grasses such as Japanese forest grass and various sedges. For me, farfugiums can’t be beat when it comes to foliage effect, and I wouldn’t want to be without them.
|Large leaves on Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’, |
looking especially beautiful when wet
Interestingly enough, farfugiums are in the Asteraceae family. Their leaves look nothing like asters, daisies or sunflowers (all members of the Asteraceae family as well), but the flowers definitely show a resemblance. Farfugiums bloom late in the season; in fact, my two giant farfugiums are getting ready to bloom now. Personally, I find the flowers to be rather weedy-looking and I’m glad they’re often hidden below the leaves. Many gardeners simply remove them.
|Flowers on Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’|
Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’ has the largest leaves of any farfugium. Leathery, kidney-shaped and a rich green, they can be 1 ft. or more across. I’ve noticed that they do droop on particularly hot summer days, even if the soil is moist, but as soon as our evening breeze kicks in, they perk right up again. The clump below has been in the ground for almost two years now (it started out as a small plant in a 4-inch pot) and has definitely sized up this year.
|My hand on a Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’ leaf|
At this year’s UC Davis Arboretum spring sale I bought another Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’ in a 1-gallon container and planted it in a corner of our back yard behind a Chinese pistache tree. Immediately behind it is a variegated flowering maple (Abutilon pictum 'Thompsonii') and to the left is a potted ‘Koi’ bamboo (Phyllostachys aurea ‘Koi’). The larger the farfugium gets, the more stunning the contrast will be with the much smaller bamboo leaves.
|Our newest Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’|
Back in our Asia-themed woodland garden, we have two other Farfugium japonicum. One is probably the best-known member of this species; it even has a common name: leopard plant. All it takes is a quick look at its leaves to know why. This one, Farfugium japonicum 'Aureo-maculatum', has impossibly bright yellow spots. In fact, my eyes are sometimes tricked into thinking that the leaves have giant burn holes in them!
|Farfugium japonicum ‘'Aureo-maculatum'|
Another leopard plant is in a pot in the far corner of our back yard (the word “far” should be taken with a grain of salt, considering how small our yard is). It has upsized dramatically since the spring when I planted it from a 1-gallon container.
|Farfugium japonicum ‘'Aureo-maculatum' leaf|
My favorite farfugium is also the most frustrating and difficult to grow: Farfugium japonicum 'Argenteum'. With its variegated leaves, it lights up a dark spot like nothing else. (The images below are of our own plant, but the most striking photo I’ve ever seen is this one.)
|Farfugium japonicum 'Argenteum'|
However, because of the lack of chlorophyll in the white areas, it grows much more slooooooowly than the other varieties and just seems fussier overall. Occasionally, you even get an all-white leaf that’s much smaller than the others.
|Completely white leaf; some critter took a little nibble on the left side|
This spring, our ‘Argenteum’ was attacked repeatedly by what we came to assume were rats. They chewed off the stems of new leaves at near ground level and left the leaves lying on the ground. A couple of days later, the chewed-off leaves were gone, too, with no trace left behind. My completely un-scientific explanation: The rats are attracted by the white areas in the leaves at night and think they make a tasty bite. I can’t prove it, but the result is quite similar to what rats did to our winter garden last year.
Farfugiums are very popular in Japan where dozens of cultivars are grown. More and more are coming to our shores, and I can’t wait to add to my collection in the years to come.
Note: Should you try to buy Farfugium japonicum cultivars like the ones described above, be it in a nursery or online, please be advised that they might still be sold under their previous botanical name Ligularia tussilaginea. Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’ used to be known as Ligularia tussilaginea ‘Gigantea’, Farfugium japonicum 'Aureomaculatum' as Ligularia tussilaginea 'Aureomaculata', and so forth. Farfugiums were split off from the genus Ligularia about 20 years ago because they have different cultural requirements from true ligularias, which don’t reliably grow in our climate because it gets too hot in the summer.