The fatsia or Japanese aralia has always been one of favorite plants because of its large palmate leaves that lend a touch of the tropics. After watching it during its bloom cycle leading up to January's big freeze, I have an appreciation for the way it brought in the butterflies.
I can't find any source that lists fatsia as a plant for butterflies, but there they were feasting on the exotic-looking blooms last fall for more than three months. Most of us think about the fatsia for the ease it grows in the landscape in zones 8 and higher, and even zone 7 with protection --- or enjoying the fatsia as an incredible houseplant that can be taken outdoors during the warm season.
But those exotic white blooms that either go unnoticed or get pruned off can serve a great purpose especially considering fall is such a great butterfly season. Once the blooms started in October we had buckeyes, cloudless sulphurs, gulf fritillaries, skippers, viceroy and zebra heliconian butterflies all feasting on the flowers.
The fatsia is a picturesque architectural plant that needs some shade but will thrive with morning sun. Prepare the soil by incorporating 3 to 4 inches of organic matter and 2 pounds of a 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of planting area, tilling deeply. This is a plant you don't want sitting in soggy winter conditions.
Dig the planting hole two to three times as wide as the rootball but no deeper, planting at the same depth it is growing in the container. A wider hole helps with quick root expansion and adaptability to your garden. By all means apply a good layer of mulch after planting.
Though it doesn't like soggy soil you will need to pay attention to its water needs in the summer by giving supplemental irrigation during prolonged dry periods. Annual light pruning will keep the plant shapely, so remove old stalks in favor of young shoots.
To enjoy as a fine indoor houseplant, place the fatsia in a bright, filtered light location. Your container should be fairly large to allow the plant to reach a stage of elegance. Don't skimp on potting soil. Choose one that is light and airy yet has good moisture-holding capacity. A heavy soil will make your life miserable when it comes to moving the plant and judging its dryness.
At the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens we have ours partnered with the red blooming firespike in one area and with gingers in another. They would also combine wonderfully with aucuba and holly fern for a tropical-style garden that is cold hardy.
In the woodland landscape, the fatsia is a perfect partner with colorful leafed hostas and ferns of all sorts. Tuck in some hellebore and will have a great garden of texture and mystique. The fatsia is also one of the best choices alongside water features whether they are pools or streams.
They are lush for the tropical style landscape, mystical in the woodland garden and perfect for water feature plantings. Now you know the blooms will also feed butterflies and attract bees; that's a winning combination.
(Norman Winter is director of the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, and author of "Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South" and "Captivating Combinations Color and Style in the Garden.") PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ongardening