The Sun King


by Tony Avent
illustration by Ippy Patterson

I’ve long been fascinated with the genus Aralia, beginning with my love of house plants as a young child. A few years later, I met the native “devil’s walking stick,” Aralia spinosa, in my West Raleigh back yard.  It was not a particularly pleasant encounter, thanks to the spiny bark that wanted to reach out and touch me.

Regardless, I was hooked, literally, on collecting as many members of the genus Aralia as possible.

Over the next few decades, I met many aralias in the wild, most notably, Aralia nudicaulis in the Adirondack mountains, Aralia continentalis in Korea, and Aralia bipinnata in Taiwan.

Others came to me via plant explorer friends with similar fascinations with the genus Aralia.  Of the 28 aralias I’ve tried since, several still remain in our garden, some as nice specimens, and others as compost. A few were banished for misbehaving: too many spines and root suckers.  Of all the aralias we’ve tried, one species which always stands out as a favorite is the Asian Aralia cordata.  Of course, as any obsessive plant collector will tell you:  Once you have the green form, you want it variegated, weeping, etcetera.

I remember well a time in 1998 when one of our Aralia cordata seedlings appeared with gold streaking. By the next spring, it had stabilized into a solid gold plant.

Over the next few years, I photographed my new gem in the garden, and after my trials were concluded, made arrangements with a tissue culture lab for mass-market propagation. But when I was finally ready to send my baby to the lab, I realized it had died, overtaken in the garden by a large shrub nearby, and mercilessly choked to death.

Not being one to usually mourn the death of a single plant, this one hurt, for I knew what a great commercial plant it would have been.

Two years later, on a trip to visit my plant friend Barry Yinger, who at the time ran a small mail-order nursery in Pennsylvania, I nearly fell over getting out of my car.  There was a gold leaf Aralia cordata by his barn, looking identical to the one I’d killed two years earlier. Yinger had found his plant at a small nursery in Japan, and unlike me, had already sent it to the lab for propagation. By 2007, I was the proud owner of Aralia cordata ‘Sun King,’ and yes, I planted it in a better spot in the garden.

Indeed, Aralia ‘Sun King’ turned out to be everything I hoped, and one of the most important new perennials to hit the commercial market in decades. It’s one of those plants that just makes you smile, a plant to remedy the summertime garden blues, or lighten up a dark corner. Its bright gold, bold, feathery foliage, which glows like the mid-day sun, adorns upright stalks that reach six feet tall at maturity.

Each winter, Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ dies to the ground. Then it returns the next spring bigger and better than the year before, emerging from the ground as fast as Jack and the proverbial beanstalk.

In late summer, the sturdy upright stalks are topped with 30-inch terminal spikes, laden with tiny white flowers that become poke-berry purple fruit with age.
In the garden, conditions from light shade to half-day sun seem perfect, but the golden foliage color will be much brighter with more sun. Soil moisture isn’t critical, but if you treat your aralia like a cactus, expect ugly leaf-burn and an early summer dormancy.

Thanks to the mass production wizardry of tissue culture, Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ is now grown far and wide, and you’ll have no trouble finding one for your garden.  If you value big, bold, and bodacious, and don’t think golden foliage is a call for fertilizer or curing, then Aralia ‘Sun King’ is a plant for you!