One of the easiest ways to add tropical flair to any landscape is to use plants with large leaves. Rice paper plant is a favorite of mine that looks amazing as a component of many landscapes.
Rice paper plant is a native of southern China and Taiwan and is known botanically as Tetrapanax paperifera. Interestingly, this is the only plant in the genus. The name refers to the use of the interior of the stem, called pith, to make a form of rice paper. This pith has the consistency and feel of plastic foam.
The foliage really creates the tropical interest. Rice paper plant has huge leaves that can be up to 15 inches across. The leaves have five to 11 coarse lobes, and the undersides have a dense, white, felt-like texture. The fan-like leaves are attached by very long petioles toward the ends of stems that grow very upright. These characteristics create a visual fan-like or umbrella-like appearance.
The plant blooms in the fall with conspicuous flower panicles that can be 3 feet long and more than 3 feet wide. These panicles are displayed above the plant foliage. The flowers are grouped in smaller clusters that are ball-shaped. The flowers have what I would describe as a savory aroma. They attract many insects looking for a late-season feeding.
Rice paper plant will form thickets, similar to its distant relative Devil’s Walking Stick, if left undisturbed. The plants readily spread by underground stems called rhizomes. New plants will spring up at various points along these rhizomes. The new little plants will leave a trail in the direction in which the rhizome is growing.
New plants can pop up 20 feet away from the original plant, and it’s not uncommon for new rice paper plants to begin to grow in the lawn and other areas. Any unwanted plants are called suckers and can be pruned off. Treating the cut end of the rhizome with an herbicide, such as Roundup, will slow down the rhizome’s outward spread.
In Mississippi, rice paper plant has the potential to reach 15 feet in height. The plant will die back in the winter, depending on the temperature. In light frosts and freezes, the stem may die back a couple of feet. Extreme cold can cause dieback to the ground. Treat this plant like many of our other perennials and provide cold weather protection pertinent to your area.
Dr. Gary Bachman is an associate Extension research professor of horticulture at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi.