The genus Helwingia honors Georg Andreas Helwing, a German pastor and expert on the genus Pulsatilla and the plants of Prussia, although he surely never laid eyes on any member of his namesake genus. It was not until 1830, nearly 82 years after Helwing’s death, that Philipp von Siebold introduced Helwingia japonica into Europe from Japan. From that point on, this genus of shrubs has had a shadowy presence in horticulture, grown as a novelty for its unusual morphology rather than its ornamental appeal. But I would make a case for the wider use of helwingias—they offer an unobtrusive charm combined with the kind of botanical fascination that demands a second look, resulting in the realization that beauty can occur along a wide spectrum.
Taxonomically, the genus Helwingia snuggles somewhere between the dogwood family (Cornaceae) and the araliads (Araliaceae), and has recently been placed in its own family, the Helwingiaceae. The leaves of all species are arranged alternately along a multistemmed framework that reaches six to eight feet in height. It is when we look at the flowering and fruiting effects, however, that things get interesting, since it appears that the inflorescences—rather small umbels—arise directly from the leaf blade.
This morphology, rare in the plant kingdom, results from the leaf stem (the petiole) and the flower stem (the pedicel) being fused up to the midpoint of the leaf blade. All species of Helwingia are dioecious, and if male and female plants are planted in proximity, pea-sized drupes ripen atop the leaf blade in early autumn.
Helwingia japonica, the species that Siebold brought into cultivation, occurs in a broad range across eastern Asia. The Japanese have selected several variegated forms of this species, with the all-goldenleaved selection, ‘Ogon’, being the most readily found in commerce there. The fruit is a black drupe that is quite handsomely displayed when the leaves are transitioning to their bright yellow autumn tint.
In the 1990s, I received two evergreen “species” of Helwingia, of somewhat sketchy provenance, from the late Dr. J. C. Raulston. Given little help from the scanty literature on the genus, we settled on calling each H. chinensis, while distinguishing the two by calling one ‘Broad-Leaved Form’ and the other ‘Narrow-Leaved Form’. The former possesses broad, glossy leaves, to three-and-a-half inches long and two inches wide, which emerge in spring with a handsome purple blush, along suckering stems to six feet. It is a male clone. The latter carries lancelike leaves to five inches—superficially rather bamboo-like—with a dull purplish green cast. This female clone would occasionally set seed for us, though not abundantly.
In 1996, in the Wolong area of Sichuan, I encountered our ‘Narrow-Leaved Form’ in its native haunts and was able to collect a small number of seeds from deep purple, fleshy fruits. The resulting plants offered a much glossier leaf surface while retaining the narrow leaf shape and fine texture. It has become an often-asked-about shrub in our woodland garden.
In the autumn of 2002, in eastern Nepal at the relatively low elevation of 6,000 feet, I and my trekking companion, Bleddyn Wynn-Jones, came upon Helwingia himalaica. With deep purple, fleshy seeds carried atop its jagged-edged deciduous foliage, this species is somewhat akin to H. japonica, though its fruit recalls that of its evergreen cousins.
A year later, in Sichuan Province, near its border with Gansu, I caught sight of a sensational, bright red-fruited shrub alongside the road. Expecting it to be a holly or photinia, I was dumbfounded to discover that it was indeed a helwingia. An evergreen to four feet in height, with elegant narrow leaves to five inches long, each leaf held up to three succulent ruby-red berries. I am eagerly awaiting germination of the seed collected from this shrub, since it promises to cross the boundary from botanically intriguing to horticulturally outstanding.
There is still much to learn about this genus. Where does the broad-leaved form of H. chinensis exist in the wild? Are there other species yet to be brought into cultivation? How climatically adaptable are those now available? These questions will ultimately be answered, though my appreciation for this small family needs no further encouragement—its zany approach to reproduction is all the beauty I need.
TYPE OF PLANT: deciduous or evergreen shrubs
ORIGIN: Himalayan region east to Japan and Taiwan
HARDINESS: USDA Zones 6 (H. japonica)/7 (other species)
HEIGHT/SPREAD: 5-8 ft./4 ft.
LEAVES: alternate, oval to lanceolate, toothed, glossy or dull green, sometimes flushed purple when young
FLOWERS: small, 3- to 5-petaled, single-sex, with pedicel fused to leaf midrib
FRUITS: a black, purple, or red berry-like drupe
SITE REQUIREMENTS: light shade; moist, well-drained, humus-rich soil
PROPAGATION: by seed or softwood cuttings rooted under mist