Coast Silk Tassel Bush

Plant of the Month

Cliff Hutson
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter


Garrya elliptica (silk tassel bush)

A prominent American film director/actor was quoted as saying, “I do not wish to achieve immortality through my work. I wish to achieve immortality through not dying.” I suggest that another way would be to have a plant named after you.

Garrya elliptica, coast silk tassel bush, was named by the preeminent botanist David Douglas after his friend Nicholas Garry, of the Hudson Bay Company, who assisted him on his collecting expeditions. (Note: Over 80 species of plant and animal have douglasii in their scientific names, in Douglas’ honor.)

This shrub, a member of the family Garryaceae, grows in the chaparral, coastal sage scrub communities and foothill-pine woodlands below 3,000 feet. Look for it in the Garden along the path through the coastal and island communities at the eastern foot of Indian Hill Mesa.

Typically, its height is less than 8 feet, but it can be as tall as 15. Flowering occurs in late winter or early spring. The grayish green flowers appear as catkins and look as though they should be hanging from a graduation cap. Male catkins, which are longer, and female catkins are on separate plants; i.e., dioecious. The dried bracts, or inflorescences, hang on the bush well into summer much like light gray ornaments.

Ethnobotanic sources say that silk tassel bush was a remedy for stomach and intestinal cramping. Also, the wood was fashioned into a spatula-like tool that was used to pry abalone off of rocks and then separate the meat from the shell.

One of my field guides states that fruit hangs from the ends of the branches, as do the tassels. I have never observed this. I usually think of fruit as something sweet and fleshy (notwithstanding acorns, squash and so on) that can be eaten as food. But, botanists use the word fruit to mean any seed bearing structure formed from an ovary of a flower and shaped so as to aid in the seed’s dispersal. So, perhaps I should look more carefully.