Garrya elliptica, commonly called silktassel or coast tassel bush, is prized for its catkins—long, pendant flowers—that cascade from branch tips among dense, green leaves in the dead of winter when little else is in bloom. This substantial, long-lived, shrub is even attractive when not flowering. Garrya is an excellent choice in large gardens with ample space for a screen or a large informal hedge. It is generally deer resistant. In habitat gardens, the purple fruits of the female plants are attractive to birds.
This evergreen shrub is native to the Coast Ranges from southern Oregon to Santa Barbara County. In the northernmost part of this range, Garrya elliptica grows in rather barren soil on the seaward side of redwoods. In Sonoma County, it grows best from Santa Rosa west to the ocean where it can tolerate full sun as well as fog, wind and rain, and is not threatened by large changes in temperature. Farther inland, it needs partial shade and moderate irrigation but may suffer if the temperature does exceed 100 degrees F. In a protected spot, garrya is cold-hardy to 12 degrees F.
Garrya elliptica has a moderate rate of growth to 10-20 ft. high and wide. Thick, elliptical or oval, leathery leaves are dark green on top with grey, woolly hair on the bottom, 1½-3 in. long and 1½ in. wide. Margins are wavy and may tend to curl.
The shrub is grown mainly for its striking female and male catkins, which appear on separate plants. Flowers are borne in long, dangling, creamy to greenish yellow catkins from December through February. Male catkins are longer and thus more dramatic, 3-8 in. in length; female catkins are shorter, reaching only 2-3½ inches long. Both sexes must be present for the female plant to bear its grape-like clusters of round berries, which are densely hairy and become velvety smooth with age. The two most popular cultivars are both male, ‘James Roof’ and ‘Evie.’ ‘Evie’ has a denser look than ‘James Roof.’
Garrya elliptica, like many California natives, is drought tolerant and must have good drainage, especially when planted in heavy clay soil. It isn’t uncommon for plants to suffer fatal damage in winters with excessively heavy rains. Planting on mounds above grade and watering thoroughly every week or two until established is recommended when monthly watering is sufficient.
Any necessary pruning should be done immediately after flowering; however, garrya does not respond favorably to remedial pruning. Unwanted branching may occur, creating larger size and denser growth.