Plant Profile: Sun King Japanese Spikenard

I tour a lot of gardens in the summer, and sometimes, you just keep noticing the same plant showing up in one beautiful garden after another. There’s something right about that plant.

This summer, the plant was golden Japanese spikenard or techincally Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’. This bright plant grows best in shady areas where it lights up the plants around it. While Japanese spikenard is a perennial, it has the heft of a small shrub. In ideal conditions with humus-rich soil, adequate water and dappled sun light, it can get 6 feet tall and wide. Truthfully, all the specimens I saw were in the 3 to 4 feet tall and wide range, which is a perfect size for many perennial beds. The chartreuse foliage, which I consider the main benefit of the plant, is brightest in spring and fall.

‘Sun King’ golden Japanese spikenard in Minnesota Sate Fair garden

Some websites list the plant as hardy to USDA Zone 4 (basically, St. Cloud and south in Minnesota) but other sites say it is hardy up to zone 3, which means it is worth a try in northern Minnesota

Sun King looks great with a variety of shade plants in different shades of green and purple: hosta, ferns, purple heucheras. The one photographed above was in the Minnesota State Fair garden of Hennepin Technical College. It was planted near other large, shade loving perennials, sun as Britt Marie Crawford ligularia, and it really stood out in the display — a great choice by the horticulture students at Hennepin Tech!

Spiknard has a white flower in late summer, which turns to a blue berry in fall that birds like. One thing to note about this plant is that it spreads via rhizomes, which means there will be suckers you will need to remove. If you like the idea of a shrub-like perennial but want to stay with natives in your yard, consider planting American spikenard (Aralia racemosa), a Minnesota native that has the same heft of Sun King but a more green color.

8 Comments

  1. Joan Tam on October 14, 2017 at 7:43 pm

    I discovered this plant while working at Otten Bros this spring and planted one in my yard where is gets a southeast exposure, and it looks great.

  2. Pauline Schottmuller on October 14, 2017 at 9:12 pm

    Is this a plant that needs to be cut back to the ground every fall or do you just leave it alone?

  3. Inez Strozier on July 19, 2018 at 2:27 am

    I LOVE Aralia Sun King! Its my pride and joy!The neighbors are drooling!!! It seems to me this plant is not your “for the masses” plant. I have not seen this beaut any where in the landscape. Which make me feel special to have this beauty !!!!!

  4. Sheila Hellerich on June 16, 2020 at 2:37 am

    The plant Sun King disappears after the last frost only to return larger in size from the year before. It grows well in the shady back of my garden and offers bright lime green contrast to other plants growing in the shade. It is a real winner

  5. Vince on August 20, 2020 at 1:07 pm

    Question: I see that it spreads by rhizome, do you guys find it invasive or tough to control?

    • Mary Lahr Schier on August 20, 2020 at 2:00 pm

      My understanding is it is not invasive in Minnesota, though it may be in milder climates. I just planted two in my garden — so I’ll keep an eye on that!

  6. Pam on August 3, 2021 at 5:05 pm

    What can you share about transplanting. I have two on the front edge behind a low stone wall but alas, they are blocking every plant behind them. I don’t want to lose them so I would appreciate any advice. I live in Albany NY area. Planted in clay soil hat has been added to for years. Shade all morning.
    I assume I should wait until fall or early spring?

    • Mary Lahr Schier on August 10, 2021 at 4:13 pm

      You could transplant either in September — giving the plant time to establish roots in its new spot — or next spring, right after it emerges.

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