Found in moist meadows and woodlands of China (Guangxi, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, Sichuan and Yunnan), Beesia calthifolia is a morphological, but attractive oddity in the Ranunculaceae. The varnished, heart-shaped leaves (1.5 to 10 cm long) with dark maroon petioles more closely resemble an Asiatic Asarum than a Ranunculus relative, and the wispy infloresences of sparse, starry white flowers (3 mm wide and long) are a long way from the bottlebrush flowers of Actaea (bugbane). Once included in Cimicifuga (now Actaea), Beesia was named for the Bees of Chester, a British nursery firm that sponsored the plant-hunting expeditions of British plant explorers George Forrest and Frank Kingdon-Ward. However, neither Forrest nor Kingdon-Ward had the honor of introducing Beesia to Western horticulture.
Name: Beesia calthifolia
Common name: Beesia
Hardiness: Zones 6b to 8(9)
Mature height: 18 to 24 inches
Mature spread: 18 to 24 inches
Classification: Semi-deciduous to evergreenherbaceous perennial
Landscape Use: Woodland perennial orgroundcover used as a specimen or en masse;epimediums, hellebores and hostas makegood companions
Ornamental Characteristics: Tall infl orescencesof small, starry white fl owers inspring; glossy, dark green, cordate leaves withtoothed margins and handsome veining
Horticultural consultant and plantsman Dan Hinkley first spotted B. calthifolia in 1996 in Zhongdian Plateau, Yunnan Province, where it grew with Arisaema elephas, Rheum alexandrae and Streptopus sp. He later introduced it through his former nursery Heronswood, and plants now in cultivation are descended from Hinkley’s Chinese collections. In the nursery trade, B. calthifolia has been erroneously identified and sold as B. deltophylla. The larger number (40 to 50) and smaller size of the “teeth” on the leaf margins differentiate the former from the latter, and B. deltophylla, which is not known in cultivation, is restricted to southeast Xizang.
Beesia calthifolia is hardy in zones 6b to 8(9), remaining evergreen in mild winters and somewhat semi-deciduous in colder ones. Its leaves can become attractively bronzed under cooler temperatures. The plant’s preference for sheltered, moist sites can lessen the impact of those spring frosts that often devastate Asiatic woodland perennials responding to spring warmth too soon. Slugs may be problematic on the young growth, but the mature leaves are generally resistant. Beesia works best either as a specimen or groundcover candidate in the garden. It looks at home with epimediums, ferns, hellebores and hostas that form the backbone of any good shade garden. For a client in Australia, I planted masses of B. calthifolia with Acer griseum (paperbark maple), Isoplexis canariensis (Canary Island foxglove) and Uncinia rubra (red hook sedge), playing off the rusty and ochre hues of a wire sculpture in the garden. In another garden, B. deltophylla is happily paired with Saruma henryi and Viburnum davidii.
While the rarity and cost of B. calthifolia may prevent it from being a common groundcover, propagation by seed can produce sufficient quantities to plant, if not give away or sell. No larger than a fleck of soil when released from follicles, the seed germinates easily within one year with and without stratification, although stratification does improve the rate of success. Given fertile soil, seedlings mature rapidly, becoming sizable enough for planting. Division is another alternative, but slower than seed.
Beesia calthifolia may be an unconventional addition to the woodland garden, yet there is something undeniably handsome about its leaves and clumping habit when its flowers are seemingly superfluous. And one can have the pleasure of challenging the ability of a discerning plantsperson to identify it.
Research Associate, Polly Hill Arboretum
West Tisbury, Mass.