Stachyurus Praecox. Photo credit: Trevor Sims

Gardener's Choice for February: Stachyurus Praecox

By Laura Griffin Hughes, Gardener

I can still recall that first feeling of absolute wonder I experienced as a child and for me (as indeed it might have been for many of you), it was when I truly understood how butterflies come into the world. The utterly extraordinary process of metamorphosis that causes something so enchanting, fragile and full of flight to come from something that is so totally earth-bound was, and still is, entirely fascinating.

However, it often seems we overlook the capacity for plants to perform similar feats of transformation - yet there are plenty of marvels to be found if you only seek them out. One such plant is Stachyurus Praecox, an elegant, arching, deciduous shrub.

In January, if you walk by it you might think it rather insignificant, but perhaps if you step closer you might just notice some dark, shrivelled, catkin-like growths clinging to its bare branches which you would probably write-off as the long-dead remnants of finished flowers. Pass by in early February however, and examine more closely, where you will find the most delicate limey-yellow bells beginning to break out of the tops of those shrunken catkins. In a few weeks, Stachyurus Praecox is covered in what for me look like luminous and perfectly formed miniature bunches of grapes.  I would argue that is some transformation, and one I think will not fail to put a spring in your step.

Hardiness: Fully hardy
Flowering time: Feb-Mar, this is the earliest of the Stachyurus to flower
Height/Spread: 1-4m (3-12ft) x 3m (10ft)
Origin: Japan
Cultivation: Prefers acid soil. However, the soil at West Dean Gardens is over a lime bedrock with a pH on the edge of alkaline - yet our Stachyurus Praecox are still thriving after almost 15 years, having been planted in borders built-up with a substantial depth of homemade compost. 

Likes moist, but well-drained fertile soil in full sun or partial shade. Needs a sheltered spot away from cold, drying winds.

This versatile shrub is great for a woodland garden, shrub border or grown against a wall where it can be fan-trained by selecting strong growth to tie in after flowering and using young growth from the base to replace the framework - regularly ensuring vigour is maintained.