A handful of dead man’s fingers

Heather Brown's gardening column on an unusual addition to her garden.

A friend and I leave the north island annually for our garden getaway. Pat lives in Winter Harbour, has a lovely garden (albeit deer-riddled) and usually needs this outing. I just need to socialize more and visit family.

We try to take in at least one great garden on the Island or lower mainland during these adventures. We also try to go to one movie that is just opening, but that is a whole other story. Some gardens are large tourist magnets — think Butchart Gardens, or Van Dusen; other gardens are smaller and less formal.

It was from one such garden I bought a couple of young trees, no tags, but a name written in felt pen on the plastic pot said “Dead Man’s Fingers”.

I liked the leaf pattern, not so much the name, but was intrigued. I gave one tree to my daughter who lives a five-minute walk away from me, the other I planted in my side yard. The plant grew slowly but after four years was about five-feet tall, and in the spring had small groupings of yellow flowers hanging from some of the upper leaf axils. Over the summer these flowers gave way to green, bean-like pods, lumpy and rough-surfaced.

By late October the pods started to turn a steely pale blue, and voila, the name of the plant!  The groups of pods hanging from the upper branches did look like Dead Man’s Fingers, once the thought was put in your head. The colour is stunning against the back drop of yellowing foliage, and if they had a more “pleasant” name I am sure they would be a more commonly grown small tree.

My daughter’s tree has grown quite a bit and looks great, but no flowers (or fruit). There is a large cherry tree shading it which may explain things. They are an interesting plant all year round. Mine are about six feet high, multi-stemmed, and spread out from a central point. The leaves look feathery and almost primeval, quite large and pale green against the darker foliage of the rhodos around them. New growth is lime green with purple veins,  very exotic.

The pods start to split as winter gets colder, and slime, with seeds, oozes out of the pod.  The first year I stayed away from the tree while it had “its cold” (grandkids’ words). Last year I picked off the pods in bunches, stems attached, put them in a five gallon bucket, and let them do their thing. After two weeks in the bucket I separated the seed from the slime. I had about a 500-plus seeds.

I had no idea of the germination recipe for them so I put water in the jar and placed them in the fridge while I thought about it. I wondered about going on the internet to find the name but after a small mishap trying to google a beaver floatplane, I really didn’t feel like typing in “dead man’s fingers”. Every time I opened the fridge I gave the jar a swirl and pondered the next step. I put a sign on the jar: “SEEDS-Do not eat or throw out”.

For my husband and grandchildren, having “Dead Man’s Fingers” written on the label might seem too revolting (or inviting). Until I learned what this plant was all about, I may as well err on the side of caution.

In early March, while mounding some fresh soil on my asparagus plants, I thought the greenhouse might be a good place to plant the seeds from the jar. There was a 4×12-foot strip of open soil in a raised bed beside the greenhouse, and in spring and early summer it received plenty of light. The greenhouse is not heated but it warms up nicely every morning.

I sprinkled the seeds in short, straight rows, sifted some fine soil over them and watered them in. I checked every day for weeks, nothing. My asparagus appeared, was eaten and still nothing. I gave up in June and bought tomato seedlings to plant where the seeds were.

And wouldn’t you know it, there were cracks in the fine topsoil, little straight lines of soil being lifted. The seeds had germinated!

The only problem was I now had about 500 of them. I have been potting up the little trees but am only halfway through. I have enough pots to finish up the planting but started to give some thought to where they will all be going. I have a couple of acres and I think I would like some along the back fence line, like a small informal hedge. My daughter wants a few, and my garden friend Pat would like a few for her garden in Winter Harbour.  That leaves about 400+ needing homes.

Oh yes, I did finally track down the name. I looked through all my plant ID manuals and found Decaisnea fargesii. If you think you could use one of these little beauties drop me a line and we can make arrangements.

Heather Mary Brown is a seasoned North Island gardener. Email questions to hmbrown@cablerocket.com