The furry, soft buds of Edgeworthia chrysantha, just opening to reveal its bright, yellow flowers.**
Given the mild climate of the Pacific Northwest, gardeners here are spoiled with a wide choice of plants to enliven their gardens through the rainy, foggy winters. As a result, I've been been acquainted with a completely new palette of shrubs and other plants that would never survive either the cold Scandinavian winters or the hot Australian summers; some of them attractive for their scent, some for the flowers, and a few lucky for both.
The nodding buds lift up their heads, eventually forming a globe of yellow flowers.
Paper bush, Edgeworthia chrysantha, is one of these happy new discoveries. For the moment, an old specimen is starting to flower at the Bellevue Botanical Gardens nearby, so ventured there to get a closer look. It wasn't quite open yet, so I couldn't detect any scent, but it is described as beautiful, Edgeworthia being part of the family of Daphnes so well-known for their heavy fragrance. It has a similar form too, as the new stems reach out in 45 degree angles from the older branches. Ultimately, it becomes a bush of about 5 ft by 5 ft, but it can also be grown as a single stemmed, little tree. Edgeworthia is very picky of its growing conditions and requires heavy loam and a sheltered location with no major frosts to thrive. Its flowers are quite insignificant, yellow tubular ones growing in tight clusters, but they are really wonderful when still in bud, covered by a silky, silvery hair, soft like rabbits ears if you touch them.
Trying to get a glimpse of the reluctant buds...
I've always loved Japanese paper, those light-weight, translucent sheets that reveal a fine structure if held against light, which can be found in good art supply stores. So I was quite intrigued to find out that Edgeworthia, or Mitsumata in Japanese, is actually one of the three most common raw materials for making Washi, a Japanese paper used for calligraphy and printmaking. The Grove Encyclopedia of materials and techniques in art tells that the Japanese farmers have since the 10th century cultivated Mitsumata to make paper during the cold winter months; low temperature discourages mold growth and tightens the fibres to produce crisper sheets. The fibre from the inner bark is washed and beaten by hand and foot in the clear running winter streams (I shiver even at the thought of this), then cooked with wood ash and washed again several times before it is set in bamboo and silk screens and processed further to become sheets of smooth, glossy, insect-resistant paper.*
The Japanese tea house at the Bellevue Botanical Garden; traditionally, Washi was used to make screens and windows for Japanese houses.
Edgeworthia is still used to make Washi paper today, even if I suspect that only few farmers produce it with the ancient method described above. And even if yellow is not my favorite color in the spring garden (besides Hamamelis, I usually find white flowers from Narcissus to tulips a bit more attractive, even if I'm not fully consistent on this...), I think Edgeworthia with its wonderful scent and interesting history would definitely be worth a try in a garden with the right conditions.