The Mighty Gunnera
By Cecilia Ayres
The Bellevue Botanical Garden is home to several Gunnera tinctoria plants. With their giant, serrated green leaves, thick, spiky stalks, and vibrant red flower spikes, they are easy to spot. The leaves can grow to be four feet across and stand at eight feet tall in the right conditions. These unique features are not only stunning, but characteristics that date back to the Cretaceous Period—yes, gunneras were around in the time of dinosaurs!
Pollen from early gunnera plants has been discovered in fossils that date back to the Late Cretaceous period in Peru, which occurred over 90 million years ago. Gunneras may have grown at the feet of dinosaurs such as the Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus, and Velociraptor! Over the succeeding 10 million years, the gunnera plant had spread across the world, with fossilized pollen spores found in modern-day North America, Australia and even Antarctica.
Gunnera plants are highly persistent, spreading through underground root systems called rhizomes, as well as pollen from their flower cones. A damaged gunnera can even regenerate from a broken stalk or the remains of a broken root.
After this highly adaptable plant found its way across the world, it landed in our very own urban garden. You can find their leaves flourishing throughout spring, summer, and fall. Look for the flower “spikes” at the base of the stalks, colored brilliant red in May and early June!
If you would like to grow a gunnera of your own, know that the process is simple. Gunneras enjoy poorly drained soil and boggy areas, so seek out areas where the soil is damp. It takes a lot of feeding to get them started, but once they are established, they grow quickly. Make your gunnera a statement piece in your front yard or interspersed between other plants.
You can find our most noticeable gunnera at the east end of the Iris Rain Garden, which is immediately adjacent to the walkway in front of The Aaron Education Center. The leaves have already grown wide enough to reach over the concrete! Other gunneras can be found near the main entrance, the Shorts House, and in the Woodland Garden. As you can see from the photos, the gunneras are currently at their best, so the perfect time to see them is now!