One of my favorite woodies in my gardened grounds is Aralia spinosa….(Aralia spinosissima). About forty years ago it arrived in my possession around mid- August, I had a large vegetable garden and was beginning my artistic landscaping of my property nearly 90% of which was covered by a mediocre lawn.
I was director of the Minnesota State Horticultural Society then. Our office was located on the St. Paul University of Minnesota Agricultural School campus. A devoted plantsman, Bob Estelle, although a Librarian at the University of Minnesota main campus, came rushing into my office around late August that year….upset that the University was destroying its century-old St. Paul campus landscaped garden to make room for a parking lot. He was carrying a rather prickly stemmed herbaceous-appearing thing with several double compound spiky leaves squeezed into a brittle plastic green colored size two pot .
He announced the survival of this Aralia spinosissima (Aralia spinosa) was in jeopardy and was trusting me to plant it in my own garden in Minnetonka about twenty five miles to the west. “It is a rare plant here in Minnesota! We can’t let it disappear!” He had apparently dug up a dozen or so ‘suckers’ and potted them to hand out to folks he could ‘trust’ to do them well. I had to do my horticultural duty, he nagged. He was too upset for me to let him down. I accepted the responsibility, but once I got home I set the pot among others I needed to plant beginning the ‘bones’ of my intended landscape gardened grounds.
I knew countless Twin City woody plants, but had never come across this almost woody thing called Aralia “the spiny” or Aralia spinosissima, “the very most spiny ever”. Plastic plant pots were made very brittle in those days. This one was colored very bright green.
Then it was suddenly early November and a 30 inch very wet snowfall began its dump while I was at work….unexpected. I had to speed home to salvage all of my brussel sprouts, sweet carrots and other edibles still rich in the garden. It was not quite dusk when I came across a pack of ten or so unpotted plants I had intended to set into the ground and nurture that Summer, but never got around to doing it. One was that very Aralia spinosa still in its green pot, Bob had trusted me to take care of…… The snow was already a foot deep. Even though the ground had not yet frozen, I was too tired to plant the darn thing. I was also too tired to feel guilty about abusing the plant. I had never watered the thing since the day it entered my property sitting among others similar in a far corner of the garden.
I disturbed a few inches of soil, dumped about a foot of oak leaves around and above the pot in the middle of a clump of three five year old French Lilacs I had planted…..and never thought about the plant for four or five years…..until one hot sweaty day in July when I was weeding with my shirt off, weeding around the grounds where my French Lilacs were growing so well. I remember being very pleased with their good looks and growth….At about my third reach attempting to collect some kind of plastic debris, my bare right arm was shredded as I pulled it back having grabbed a handful of grassy weeds. I looked at my upper arm where the skin was shredded as if some animal had clawed me big time. I had never heard of any lilac being spiny, yet the spiny woody stalk was easily five feet tall, with another two slightly shorter blending perfectly among some thicker woody stalks without spines.
Only for a moment did I try to digest that my French Lilacs had spines growing out of their stems. Then I spied the truth to calm my dismay……I saw a number of small pieces of brittle plastic around the ground swelling of the largest of the three spiny stems. Moreover, my fist had wrapped around a few pieces of that same green colored plastic I dropped while my arm was being slashed.
Thirty years later I have to admit, Aralia spinosa…..I prefer ‘Aralia spinosissima’, which is more accurately descriptive, is one of my favorite of any of perhaps a hundred or more woody plants I have planted or have allowed to be grown and nurtured in my landscaped gardened grounds since.
Aralia spinosissima was its name when I first looked up the details of the stranger the day after its arrival. Even the double compound leaves, each easily three feet long, possess spines. It produces a large cluster of florets, one to two feet wide at the tops of the foliage (at the twenty foot level)….and is doing so as I write this biography of my “Club of Hercules” as it is romantically called. These florets, countless in number, open up mid August and mature into berries which become very popular to robins and cedar waxwings in October when they literally get drunk devouring them in preparation for their journeys southward for winter.
Three or four years ago we had a winter with very, very little snow cover with temperatures down to minus 20 F….two or three times. All of my Aralia tree trunks, about six, died to the ground. This is the first crop of floral clusters, six in number, since that seasonal set back. They are opening as I write this ‘report’.
I planted starters in two other locations in my gardened landscape, done before I began to respect their drive to expand their territories. Fortunately, their shoots are easy to pull out the first two years of growth…..Gloves are highly recommended. You’ll learn why quickly!
In my Twin City metropolitan grounds, these spiny double compound leaves normally all drop within two or three days after the first killing frost. Aralia spinosa (spinosissima) sure looks naked and mean in Winter.