Virtues: ‘Sun King’ aralia or spikenard (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’) is a shade-loving perennial provides a bright, taller backdrop for hostas, heucheras and other low-growing, rounded shade garden plants. ‘Sun King’ offers upright, shrubby growth and interest through both its bright foliage and its summer flowers. It was named Perennial Plant of the Year for 2020 and received a Theodore Klein Plant Award the same year, as well as an Outstanding Plant Award from the International Hardy Plant Union in 2012.
Common name: ‘Sun King’ aralia, ‘Sun King’ Japanese spikenard
Botanical name:Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’
Exposure: Part shade
Flowers: Clusters of small white flowers appear in mid- or late summer, attracting bees and other pollinators. Bloom can continue into the early fall. Black berries ripen after the bloom. These are inedible to humans but loved by birds.
Foliage: The leaves are highly textural thanks to their compound structure (many leaflets joined to a single leaf stem). They have a golden-green color that they retain throughout the summer.
Habit: This is an herbaceous perennial. It dies back in fall and emerges in spring to grow three feet tall and wide or more.
Origin: The species Aralia cordata hails from forests and shady slopes across Korea, Japan and eastern China. ‘Sun King’ stands apart from the straight species because of its golden leaves. According to the Missouri Botanical Garden, plantsman Barry Yinger discovered it on a nursery bench while plant shopping in Japan and introduced it to the US market.
How to grow it: Site ‘Sun King’ aralia in part shade and rich to average soil. Its best leaf color is prompted by a couple hours of sun each day (preferably in the morning). It requires even moisture and will not tolerate drought. It may self sow to form a colony. USDA Zones 3–9.
Image credit: Walters Gardens