Szechuan Bramble

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The Summer months aren't complete without these leaves.  Szechuan Bramble: How else are you going to get foliage into your garden that looks like the model for the clubs of playing cards?

 

Especially from anything called a "bramble" that is totally thorn-free.  An ouch-free ornamental raspberry:  Who knew?

 

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Fast-growing stems on this shrub—and yes, it's a shrub, not a hard-to-control colony of canes—give you ever-longer opportunities to contrast the large veiny foliage with more normal foliage nearby. 

 

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The foliage is so large, the stems so flexible, the growth so light-weight overall, that the entire bush is your invitation to drape, poke, tie, and swag the stems atop, through, and in front of anything within reach.  It would even be worth it to rig up wires, mesh, or a huge expanse of lattice, so you can get every stem arrayed how you like.

 

Szechuan Bramble:  The name may bring images of a rough-and-tumble character, even an aggressive and defiant one.  Ha!  This is the ornamental raspberry that begs you to be your garden's interior decorator.

 

 

 

Here's how to grow this exciting ornamental raspberry:

 

Latin Name

Rubus setchuenensis

Common Name

Szechuan Bramble

Family

Rosaceae, the Rose family.

What kind of plant is it?

Scrambling deciduous shrub.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 9

Habit

A true shrub, not a suckering colony of canes like a typical raspberry.  A very fast-growing die-back plant for me; the sprawling, arching, thornless, cane-like branches can grow ten to twelve feet over the Summer, and are flexible enough to be looped along horizontal wires. 

Rate of Growth

Very fast.

Size in ten years

In climates mild enough that there isn't Winter die-back—Zone 7 and up—Szechuan Bramble could be a large shrub, indeed, with branches to ten or twelve feet.

Texture

Intriguing and almost tropical because of the distinct as well as large round-lobed foliage.

Grown for

the foliage, with large (to ten inches) round-lobed leaves that will remind you of the clubs on playing cards, alternating up very long, rarely-branching, completely thornless, cane-like stems. 

 

the "swag" potential that the long flexible canes provide.  I tend to tie some canes on the horizontal wires of an espalier frame that's still not yet covered by an 'Alistair Stella Gray' rose.  For more possibilities, see How to Handle it.

 

the small, pale-pink flowers aren't showy, and are more generously produced on canes that don't die back to the ground each Winter.  So I rarely see them.

Flowering season

Summer.

Culture

Szechuan Bramble is quite accomodating, growing happily in sun or part shade.  As usual, well-drained soils help Winter hardiness.  Because this large-leaved quick-growing shrub needs plenty of water in the warmer months, the soil should still be rich and moisture-retaining, only qualifying as "well drained" because the site itself has a bit of slope to it.  (If, like me, you garden on flat-as-Kansas land, just be sure to plant your Bramble on a little and gentle mound.  Even a couple of inches of height above the surrounding terrain is a help.)  This is not the plant for soils that are well-drained because they are lean and sandy.

How to handle it

Shelter in the Winter is important.  Is there a south-facing corner of your house?  Then the plant will be sheltered from north winds.  Can you plant right near your foundation?  Then the soil doesn't freeze as hard or as deep.  Can the canes be growing up through loose evergreens, like untrimmed yews or Hinoki cypress?  They'll buffer the Winter wind and so, potentially, lessen the amount of stem dieback. 

 

Cut back the dead canes to the ground in Spring; if you're lucky, some of the canes will only have died-back part way.  There's no rush to do this pruning: let the live canes start sprouting new leaves first, so you can really tell at a glance just what's dead.  New canes sprout from the base of the shrub, and, in mild Winters, from the base of mostly-dead canes, too. 

 

By June you can start a Summer of fun with the ever-lengthening canes of huge Jack-of-Clubs foliage.  Leading the canes up through loose-limbed needle or "fan-spray" evergreens, as above, would be a marvelous contrast.  The leaves are so big, and with their peculiar club shape, that even rhododendron foliage would be a satisfying contrast. 

 

If, though, by some amazing good fortune you have a tall and wide wall separated from a pathway by only a narrow bed, you could hang mesh on the wall each Spring, and then, all Summer long, fan the bramble's canes to it in an ever-expanding peacock-tail flourish.  You'll need to tie the canes to the mesh every two feet or so.  They're light enough (as well as totally thornless) that you can use thin twine or even (if you've got nimble fingers) heavy thread.  The canes grow so fast that you'll need to work on your "tail" each week, so this isn't something to attempt if you would first have to tiptoe through perennials and around bushes to get to work.  After hard frosts in the Fall, cut all the canes off at two or three feet so you can release the mesh and the tops of the canes from the clump.  Cut the entire mesh down, leaving the tops of the canes tied to it.  Throw the entire rigamarole away; yes it's a bit profligate, but I'm assuming you're doing wonderful amounts of recycling and home-composting already, so you're entitled.  Don't forget to mulch the base of the shrub heavily.

Downsides

If only it were a bit hardier.  Definitely a die-back here in southern Rhode Island; be sure to mulch the base of your colony heavily so you don't lose it altogether.

Variants

No garden should be without a few ornamental raspberries.  They range in habit from prostrate-as-ajuga "rugs", to hosta-height groundcovers, to canes or actual bushes the scale of edible raspberries, to tree-climbing vines.  The foliage can be chrome or green, or silver-backed, or ferny, or variegated, or broad.  Some have almost no thorns or even bristles, others are showy precisely because of them.  A couple, e.g., R. odoratus, have showy flowers.  Choice R. coronarius, with double-white flowers to rival roses, is, alas, tender here in Zone 6.  On the other hand, I got my starter plants of R. idaeus 'Aureus' from a Zone 4 garden way up in Vermont.   

Availability

On-line.

Propagation

By layering or, if you live in a climate mild enough for the shrub to bloom, by seed.

Native habitat

China

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