Chloranthus japonicus in flower
Plant spotlight

Chloranthus have Chlorophyll

Chloranthus, a genus of 17 species of easy-to-grow Asian perennials, are among the most esoteric perennials you’ll find. These deciduous (in our climate) perennials are prized for their elegant, bold texture in the woodland garden and rather prehistoric flowers in late spring.

Chloranthus is considered by paleontologists to be one of the basal angiosperms…in plain English, they think chloranthus represents one of the earliest, most primitive flowering plants. Consequently, it was kicked out of all major plant families and segregated in its own family Chloranthaceae.

In China, chloranthus flowers are added to tea to impart a unique sandalwood-like scent and in Southeast Asia the leaves are also used to make tea…as well as being prized for its many medicinal values…as a female aphrodisiac, a contraceptive, a treatment for fevers and body aches, and as a cure for venereal disease.

In the woodland garden, few plants can rival the bold textural form of chloranthus. The dark green leaves, somewhat reminiscent of hydrangea, remain looking great until fall. The 2-3′ stems, are topped in May with spikes of tiny, white, bottlebrush-like flowers that are fragrant in the morning. We have found chloranthus to be one of the easiest woodland perennials that we grow, thriving in both acidic to slightly alkaline soils. As a general rule, they prefer a part shade site with well-drained, consistently moist soil, but we have found them to be quite tolerant of dry periods, if you don’t mind a bit of foliar wilting in the heat of summer.

Chloranthus henryi (zone 6a-9b) emerges as 15″ tall, upright, fleshy stalks, each adorned with at least two whorls of large, glossy, olive-green leaves (9″ long x 6″ wide). In April, each stalk on the 2′ wide clump is topped with short pendent racemes of tiny white flowers.

Chloranthus japonicus (zone 5a-8b), which hails from low woodlands in Japan (and Korea), from Hokkaido in the north all the way south into Kyushu, is quite different from the other species we grow. Chloranthus japonicus emerges for us as early as late March with cinnamon stalks, each clothed with four dark green leaves and topped with terminal white flowers that resemble electrocuted pipe cleaners. As the flowers fade, you’re left with the nice 15″ tall x 15″ wide clump of bold-textured foliage during the remainder of the growing season.

Chloranthus multistachys (zone 6a-8b) hails from moist woodlands up to 5,000′ elevation in central and southern China. The 18″ tall x 3′ wide clumps are composed of fleshy upright stems, clothed in large 1′ long x 6″ wide, glossy, green corrugated leaves. In late April, the clumps are topped with terminal clusters of tiny white flowers.

Chloranthus serratus (zone 5a-9b) from China is the shortest of the chloranthus we have trialed. Our 7-year-old clumps of Chloranthus serratus are now 1′ tall x 3′ wide, spreading slightly wider each season. The fleshy stems are adorned with four terminal olive-green leaves, with each oppositely held pair stacked just above the other. The stem is topped, starting in late-April, with two upright bottlebrush-like spikes of tiny white flowers.

Chloranthus sessilifolius (zone 6a-8b) hails from 2,000′-4,000′ elevation forests in the Chinese provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, and Jiangxi. For us, Chloranthus sessilifolius var. austrosinensis makes a 20″ tall x 30″ wide clump of upright stalks clothed with rubbery, green, 6″ long x 4″ wide leaves. The stalks are topped with short, dangling, terminal spikes of tiny white flowers starting in mid-April (NC).  Chloranthus sessilifolius ‘Get Shorty’ is a selection we named for its dark foliage.  The 18″ tall x 18″ wide clump of stems, are each topped with only four dark olive-green leaves that emerge with a nice purple cast.

Chloranthus erectus (zone 7b-10b) is one of the more tender member of the genus. A staple in our woodland shade garden since 2004, it is very late to emerge…often not before late June due to our cold winters. Native from near sea level to 6,000′ elevation, over a wide range from the Himalayas to southeast Asia, the 2′ tall clump (taller in warmer climates) is adorned with long, glossy green leaves and topped with terminal spikes of white pipe cleaner-like flowers in October…long after the other spring-flowered chloranthus have finished (flowers earlier in warmer winter climates).

– Tony Avent

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