2020 Perennial of the Year: Aralia ‘Sun King’

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Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’. Photo: terranovanurseries.com

It’s big, it’s bold and it’s golden … and it’s now the 2020 Perennial of the Year, as chosen by the Perennial Plant AssociationAralia cordata ‘Sun King’, the golden aralia. It was nominated again and again for several years and has finally made its way to the top.

I first saw this plant in 2011 and immediately lusted for it, but it wasn’t yet available locally. Then, in 2012, this golden variety of the Japanese spikenard (A. cordata) won an International Hardy Plant Union Outstanding Plant Award, making it all the more desirable, as they don’t give out awards like that to wimpy plants. It was originally found and introduced by the guru of Asian plants, Barry Yinger, apparently in a garden center on top of a Japanese department store.

When I finally got a hold of a specimen of golden aralia in 2014, I already knew enough to ignore the dimensions given on the label. It claimed it would be 3 feet (90 cm) high and wide. Yeah, right! That’s how big it gets the first year! By year 4 or 5, your plant will likely be 5 or 6 feet (1.5 m to 2 m) tall and nearly as wide. In my cool summer climate, which it seems to love, it grows to nearly 9 feet (2.75 m) tall and 7 feet (2 m) wide, at least if you grow it in partial shade and rich, evenly moist soil. 

Although it looks like a big shrub, it’s a true perennial, dying to the ground in the fall and starting over in the spring.

What look like individual leaves are actually leaflets of a huge compound leaf. Photo: terranovanurseries.com

But it’s a stunning plant! The huge leaves with reddish stalks are compound and double to triple pinnate, with each heart-shaped (that’s what cordata means) leaflet looking like an individual leaf. The leaflet is lightly toothed … and a striking chartreuse early in the season, fading to a still lovely bright lime green by summer’s end. (In too much shade, it will revert to medium green.) 

The flowers are interesting, but not striking. Photo: sunlightgardens.com

The plant blooms readily enough in late summer with tall panicles of round umbels at the top of the plant. The individual flowers are white, but backed by a light-green ovary, so appear more lime green than white. Given the brilliant yellow foliage just below, the flowers have fairly little impact, although clearly bees love them.

The berries are more impressive than the flowers. Photo: sunlightgardens.com

They give way in late fall to tiny nearly black berries that birds love and that are visually much more interesting than the flowers. The berries aren’t poisonous, but nor are they considered edible either.

The young stalks are edible though and this plant has been called mountain asparagus for that reason. Called udo in Japanese, the stalks are eaten blanched or pickled as a vegetable in its native lands: Japan, Korea and China. However, I don’t think most gardeners will be eating their golden aralia any time soon: it’s far too attractive for that!

Growing Your Own Golden Aralia

Sun King creates quite an impact in the garden! Photo: terranovanurseries.com

This plant is considered a tough, no-nonsense perennial, yet, to my great chagrin, I must confess that I failed twice with it. I really wanted it in a deeply shady spot of my yard where it’s golden foliage would have created the effect of a beacon, but clearly the label’s claim that it is adapted to shade is open to interpretation. Both times, the plant hung on through the summer and never came back in the spring. When I tried light shade, it did much better. In fact, it grew to enormous dimensions. 

I keep reading that it’s not adapted to sun, but that’s probably in hotter, drier climates than mine. I see it in full sun here and it does just fine. My guess is it will grow perfectly in deep shade in the South, where the sun is more intense and penetrates more deeply, but will need some sun in the North where sunlight is weaker. And likewise, it will thrive in full sun in the cooler North, but need some shade in the sweltering South. 

Sun King aralia seems to like rich, evenly moist soil, either acid, neutral or slightly alkaline, but will tolerate drought, sulkily, if necessary. If you don’t keep it watered, though, it will flop and there is nothing more annoying than a 9-foot (2.75 m) plant lying collapsed across your walkway. It will need deep soil, given its massive root system. 

It’s a stunner in a container! Photo: Perennial Plant Association

It’s claimed to be hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9 (AgCan hardiness zones 4 to 9) and I can verify that it does fine in the coldest part of that range. I’ve seen it used beautifully in pots, where it remains of a more modest size (about 3 feet/90 cm tall and wide). Pot-grown plants will need protection in cold winter areas.

Do be aware that the golden aralia is a bit slow to awaken in the spring, so don’t give up hope. And that’s probably just as well, as I’ve heard it can be damaged by late frosts. In my climate, there is no sign of life until June, yet a month later, it’s taller than me. 

Deer are said to despise Japanese spikenard and I’d assume other plant nibblers, like rabbits and groundhogs, would feel the same. I hear that slugs can go for early growth, but it soon outgrows them. I’ve seen no slug damage on my plant, though, but then, I don’t have much of a slug problem. Sun King aralia doesn’t seem to have many other insect enemies or serious diseases. 

A close relative, the devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa), has nasty spines, but the golden aralia is totally spineless. Photo: gobotany.nativeplanttrust.org

Oh, and considering that its woody relatives like devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) and angelica tree (Aralia elata) are insanely spiny and sucker like crazy, it’s nice to know that the Sun King is totally spineless and doesn’t seem to sucker at all. Nor does it self-sow to any great degree. Do note, though, that any seed-sown plants will be all green. If you want to multiply it, try division or stem cuttings.

You may already be growing this great plant—so many people are!—but if not, it’s an outstanding big perennial most gardeners could easily find good use for.

Perk Up Shade With Golden Foliage

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Plants with golden foliage (here, Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea Nana’) add punch to the landscape. Photo: laidbackgardener.wordpress.com

Gardeners have their own vocabulary, on that can seem a bit strange to the uninitiated. For example, when they speak of a “golden” color, they don’t mean the shiny metallic color of your 14-karat ring, but rather, when it comes to flowers, to bright yellowy orange … and when golden is linked to foliage, there is yet another definition.

“Golden” foliage is not really yellow at all, but rather a very, very clear green. You could call it lime green, and in fact, many “golden” leaved plants do turn lime green as the summer advances, but the true golden shade of plant foliage is even paler, with perhaps a touch of lemon. I often describe it as “chartreuse yellow,” much like the color of the brilliantly colored liqueur. Still, most gardeners continue to call these yellow-leaved plants golden, a use that is, by the way, mirrored in the Latin term often used as a cultivar name for golden plants, ‘Aurea’ (also ‘Aureum’ or ‘Aureus’, depending on the gender of the preceding word). It too means ‘golden’.

It’s a color that definitely stands out from the crowd. Especially when the golden-leaved plant is in a shady spot or surrounded by plants with darker foliage. Under such circumstances, it seems almost to glow, like a ray of sunshine breaking through overhead leaves.

What Causes Golden Foliage

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Photo: gardensoline.com.au

Golden foliage is very common in horticultural circles, resulting from a fairly frequent mutation. In fact, I occasionally find golden seedlings among the plants I grow from seed (that and occasional variegated or albino plants). It results when chlorophyll, a green pigment which is usually highly concentrated in leaves and thus usually gives them a mid- to dark green color, is very diffuse, resulting a green much closer to lemon yellow.

Usually, this lack of chlorophyll is somewhat detrimental to the plant’s vigor. In the wild, such mutants would be eliminated, as they won’t grow as fast as their brethren with green foliage, but it’s a minor flaw, not serious enough to truly damage the plant’s performance in the garden as long as the gardener removes any competition.

And gardeners do love it: golden foliage is increasingly popular in gardening circles everywhere.

In landscaping, golden foliage has an advantage over plants with beautiful flowers. The latter are only attractive when they are in bloom and most plants only bloom for a few weeks each summer. Golden-leaved plants, on the other hand, shine through from late spring to fall, sometimes all winter in the case of golden evergreens. Try them in a location that seems a bit dull or shady or where the surrounding plants are very dark green and you’ll see: the site immediately perks right up!

Sun Damage

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Sun damage to golden hosta leaves. The damage isn’t nearly as serious in colder climates. Photo: Missouri Botanical Garden

The golden leaves have an innate defect: they tend to “burn” in the sun. Sometimes the color simply washes out, leaving them with a white overlay. In other cases, the leaf can actually die back. Unless otherwise stated (and there are many exceptions to this rule), it’s best to plant golden plants in partial shade or at least to protect them from the afternoon sun, especially in the regions with hot summers. In cooler climates, though, you can often plant them in full sun and see no damage.

Another factor to consider is that golden foliage can be so dominant that it can bury other colors, notably those of the plant’s flowers. This is especially the case with white or yellow flowers: unless they are very large, the brilliance of the golden leaves often simply overpowers them and you scarcely notice the bloom! On the other hand, I think you’ll find that golden foliage is so attractive that you really don’t need the flowers.

A Vast Choice

There are hundreds of plants with golden foliage and they’re found in all plant categories: annuals, perennials, shrubs, trees, climbers, etc. What follows are just a few suggestions to brighten up your garden. Any garden center offers plenty more!Symboles anglais.jpg

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Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’. Photo: http://www.perennialresource.com

Golden aralia (Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’): A huge perennial with golden compound leaves. Color brightest in partial shade, but still remarkable in deep shade. Insignificant white flowers. Has become hugely popular very quickly due to its ability to give punch to the shadiest nooks. ☀🌤☁ 6 ft x 3 ft (2 m x 1 m). Zone 4.

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Thuja occidentalis ‘Jantar’. Photo: Kaitlin Slattery Rebella, Pinterest

Golden arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Jantar’): Mutation of the popular all-green columnar arborvitae ‘Smaradg’ (‘Emerald’). Foliage bright chartreuse yellow all summer, turning amber in winter. (Jantar means amber in Polish.) Very narrow, upright habit. ☀🌤 15 ft x 3 ft (5 m x 1 m). Zone 4.

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Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea Nana’. Photo: laidbackgardener.wordpress.com

Golden barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Aurea Nana’): Shrub forming a beautiful rounded mound of small chartreuse-yellow leaves. Very thorny stems. Insignificant flowers; small red berries, few in number, most visible in fall. The foliage turns red in autumn. Adapts well to full sun. 3-4 ft x 3-5 ft (90-120 cm x 90-150 cm). ☀🌤 Zone 4b.

B. thunbergii ‘Monlo’ (Gold Nugget ™) is similar, but more compact (18 in x 40 in./45 cm x 100 cm).

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Plectranthus scutellarioides ‘Wasabi’. Photo: Select Seeds

Golden coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides): Wide choice of varieties with golden foliage, such as ‘Wasabi’. Others mix chartreuse-yellow with other colors. Shade or partial shade; sun only if you can keep the soil moist. ☀🌤☁ 1-3 ft x 12-18 in. (30-90 cm x 30-45 cm). Annual.

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Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’. Photo: svnursery.com

Golden elderberry (Sambucus racemosa ‘Sutherland Gold’): Shrub. There are actually several golden elderberries, but this variety is among the most attractive, with beautifully cut foliage almost like a feather duster. White flowers scarcely noticeable, but remarkable red berries. Partial sun or partial shade. 5 ft x 5 ft (1.5 m x 1.5 m). ☀🌤Zone 4b.

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Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’. Photo: laidbackgardener.wordpress.com

Golden forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘All Gold’): There are dozens of golden grasses, but this is one of the better ones for shady spots. Arching mound of narrow chartreuse-yellow leaves. Insignificant flowers. Does best in part shade. ☀🌤☁ 18 in. x 18 in. (45 cm x 45 cm). Zone 4.

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Hosta ‘Sum & Substance’. Photo: www.perennial resource.com

Golden hosta (Hosta spp.): There are many golden hostas, including the popular Hosta ‘Sum & Substance’, a giant slug-resistant variety. Bloom often insignificant. Variable sizes, from just 6 inches (15 cm) in height and diameter to over 3 feet (90 cm) in height and 9 feet (3 m) in diameter. ☀🌤☁ Zone 3.

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Filipendula ulmaria ‘Aurea’. Photo: baystateperennial.com

Golden meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria ‘Aurea’): Perennial with attractively cut and textured foliage in a particularly striking shade of chartreuse. Relatively insignificant white flowers. Tough, long-lived plant. 3 ft x 2-3 ft (90 cm x 60-90 cm). Zone 3.

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Philadelphus coronaria ‘Aureus’. Photo: Leonora (Ellie) Enking, Flickr

Golden mock orange (Philadelphus coronaria ‘Aureus’): Golden leaved shrub. White flowers exquisitely scented … but less numerous than green-leafed varieties. In cold climates, it will bloom well only after mild winters. Sometimes burns in intense sun. ☀🌤 6 ft x 6 ft (2 m x 2 m). Zone 3b (foliage), 5b (flowers).

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Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Dart’s Gold’: F.D. Richards, Flickr

Golden ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Dart’s Gold’): Shrub with maple-shaped leaves. Insignificant white flowers, bright red fruits. Red leaves in fall. Doesn’t burn in full sun. ☀🌤 4-5 ft x 4-5 ft (1.2-1.5 m x 1.2-1.5 m). Zone 2b.

P. opuliformis ‘Luteus’ is similar, but larger: 6-8 ft x 6-8 ft (2-2,5 m x 2-2,5 m).

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Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’. Photo: Botbln, Wikimedia Commons

Golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’): Perennial herb, both ornamental and edible. Brightly colored foliage; white flowers nevertheless fairly visible. True to type from seed. May burn a little in full sun. ☀🌤 8-12 in. x 12-18 in. (20-30 cm x 30-45 cm). Zone 4.

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Centaurea montana ‘Gold Bullion’. Photo: R. & S. Illingworth, Flickr

Golden perennial cornflower (Centaurea montana ‘Gold Bullion’): Perennial with wide golden leaves that make the deep purple flowers really stand out. Leaves bright orange in spring. Flowers in midsummer. ☀🌤 2 ft x 1 ft (60 cm x 30 cm). Zone 3.

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Tradescantia x andersoniana ‘Sweet Kate’. Photo: laidbackgardener.wordpress.com

Golden spiderwort (Tradescantia x andersoniana ‘Sweet Kate’, syn. ‘Blue and Gold’): Perennial with narrow, ribbonlike foliage resembling a grass. Beautiful purple flowers highlighted by the foliage. There are also spiderworts with golden foliage in other flower colors. ☀🌤 20-30 in. x 12 in. (50-60 cm x 30 cm). Zone 4.

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Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’. Photo: laidbackgardener.wordpress.com

Golden sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’): Shrub with deeply cut pinnate foliage. Chartreuse yellow with red veins. Foliage turns bright red in fall. Dark red fruits on mature specimens. Much less invasive than other sumacs. ☀🌤 6-8 ft x 4-6 ft (2-4 m x 1-2 m). Zone 3a.


The plants described above are only a drop in the bucket. If the golden leaves are your thing, you’ll have plenty of choice!20170806A HC