On Gardening: Giant leopard plant a spectacular member of the aster family

April 20, 2015

The giant leopard plant produces dark green glossy leaves that may get 12 to 15 inches wide.

Members of the aster family can be described by a lot of wonderful adjectives, but "lush" and "tropical" are typically not among them. Yet that is the case with the giant leopard plant. Botanically speaking, I am referring to Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum,’ and though it is found growing on rocky cliffs in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, it is turning some of the squares here in Savannah, Ga., into visions of garden paradise.

I find this superb, as one of my horticultural heroes Robert Fortune is credited with introducing it to England in 1856. He was the quintessential plant explorer. Savannah is a town rich in botanical history, ranging from plant explorers from the Trustees Garden of the 1730s that many consider to-be our country’s first experiment station, to the USDA Plant Introduction Station that is now the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens. Giant leopard plants in the historic squares will just add to the botanical lore.

But the giant leopard plant is found not just in our historic district but also in our finest neighborhoods, particularly those that are like wildlife preserves. Here the extraordinarily beautiful plants remain pristine and untouched by the native deer population. You won’t see cages or netting protecting these plants, just some of the most exotic foliage in the garden world.

If you are not familiar with the plant, you might think it is a dichondra on steroids, the result being a plant as large as a giant hosta. The difference however is the two- to three-foot clumps formed of round- to kidney-shaped,deep green glossy leaves. The leaves can be enormous, reaching close 12 to 15 inches wide.

I grew it in Mississippi, where winter temperatures were regularly in the teens. There the plant stayed evergreen in spite of what might be considered punishing temperatures. In Savannah the last two winters have been equally bone chilling. Technically speaking, it is a zone 7-10 plant, though it is not hard to find testimony from gardeners who have found success in micro climates in zone 6b. In colder areas you will treasure this plant in large containers moved to indoor winter protection.

It thrives in moist, fertile soil and doesn’t want to dry out much and every great leopard plant I have seen has been growing in shady to filtered-light locations. Any shady areas you have that tend to stay moist would probably be just about perfect for this plant.

By now you are probably thinking, what about the aster family type flowers? In October and November, tall spikes seem to explode from the clump with clusters of yellow daisy-like blossoms, adding further pizzazz to your shady area. These spikes may range in height from 24 to 36 inches and will bring in an assortment of bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

The leopard plant would add great contrast to an area where you might grow hostas, ferns, begonias and shady ornamental grasses. It will look stunning along a woodland trail, a meandering stream or a dry creek bed that stays moist. It is perfect at the edge of water gardens and looks picturesque grown in a garden with spring azaleas.

I am touting the giant green selection, but know this can also be a collector’s dream plant with those that have spots, variegations and even wavy leaves. These are all worthy of searching for, even if you have to urge your favorite garden center to get them for you. The giant leopard plant, however, is your starting point. I hope you will give it a try.



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