Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Aucuba Japonica

Living in the south makes one really appreciate the shade. Oh boy do I ever appreciate shade! As much as I love the shade, I bemoan the fact there are not as many colorful plants for the shade as there are for the sun. There are a few though, and the one I wish to talk about today is the Aucuba japonica.

When I first moved here in 2001, I kind of went on a buying spree. Any new plant was fair game. Some worked well, some did not. The ones that worked well I made a mental note to get more of them and to learn more about them. Aucuba japonica, aka the Gold Dust plant, certainly fit in the category of 'shrubs that do well in the shade'. Not only do they do well in shade, but they do just fine in dry soil too. Good thing since most of our summers are quite dry, and most of my shade is dry too.

The aucuba pictured is one of about 1/2 dozen aucubas growing in my garden. They are all planted in a raised bed out front that encircles an oak tree and a very mature pine tree. You can just make out another aucuba directly behind the one featured today. I featured this particular one because it is a female aucuba. And female aucubas bear bright red berries! See them in the first picture? What a lovely sight on a winter-make that a spring day.

In order to get berries on the female plant, you must have a nearby male plant. Now how on earth can I or anyone determine what is a male aucuba and what is a female aucuba? I guess by the luck of the draw I managed to purchase a male somewhere along the way, along with the females. This is the first year in many years that the aucubas have borne a great amount of berries. By great amount, I mean more than 5 or 6. Not many really, but the few that do show up are welcomed.

Many gardeners do not realize that aucubas are not self pollinating. I can tell you from experience it is difficult to find an aucuba that is marked 'female' or 'male' in nurseries or big box stores. Sometimes you can occasionally find a male cultivar that is usually variously labeled with a 'Mister' in its name, but not often. The best advice I can give is to make sure you have more than one aucuba and buy from a variety of sources, or even better, find a nursery that understands aucubas need a male and female in order to produce berries.

I planted these aucubas around my one and only pine tree out front. They circle the pine tree and the intent is for the aucubas to grow large enough that they completely encircle the trunk so it looks kind of like the trunk is growing out of the aucubas. I like that effect and aucubas can grow up to 15 feet, though 6-8 feet is more common in gardens. I expect they'll do fine here and continue to grow in order to produce the effect I hope for.

The fact the aucubas are evergreen is a bonus that helps to shield our home from a busy state highway. This time of year aucubas can get some freeze damage and the tips of their leaves will turn black and dry up. Not to worry, once warm weather arrives they will bounce back beautifully.

Aucubas would prefer a moist well drained soil slightly acidic to be in ideal conditions, but is adaptable. The fact mine are planted under a mature pine should tell you the difficult growing conditions these aucubas are growing in. The soil is extremely dry and rather congested with pine roots, however the aucubas are undaunted, and still they grow.

All parts of aucubas are poisonous. This is very good news if you have a deer or rabbit problem, but you want to site these shrubs carefully while keeping this fact in mind if you have children or pets around who may eat the shrubs.

So, here is a wonderful shrub with colorful leaves and red berries that can brighten any shade garden in the south. Their growing zones only include 6-10. That must be the reason I could never find them up north, but here they are fairly abundant under shade trees, keeping me cool and providing color.

in the garden....


  1. I always used to look at these Aucubas shrubs in plant books as they are so striking. I'd love to grow one but I am pretty sure our winter would kill it. It's a sham really as they really are a bight spot in the shade.

  2. If I had shade I would certainly have some Acubas. In my 'book of plants to possibly get sometime in the future' I have 'Mr. Goldstrike' and 'Picturata' with 'Picturata' being a favorite. Maybe someday I will have shade.
    Glad yours have berries--congrats on a male and a female. You are right about it not being easy to find them labeled correctly.

  3. Sounds like a great shade shrub. I didn't realize they were hardy to zone 6.

    Always Growing

  4. They look like a beautiful shrub and even better with berries. Won't grow up here! :(

  5. Mother has these, but none of them have berries. I didn't even know they did have berries--thanks for that information! They are so easy to propogate from cuttings. That's why Mother has so many--all from one plant!

  6. One of my favorite shrubs! I had shade at a previous house. I planted the aucuba at the back (semi-circle to soften a corner), then astilbe, then hostas. Loved the look! Of course, deer eventually found the hostas, then we moved! LOL


  7. I just read your comment on my post about the willow with it's male and female plants.
    I don't have an Aucuba in my garden, so I can't look at it myself, and allthough it's easy to find pictures on the internet with e.g. male and female flowers of holy, I don't find any about the different Aucuba flowers, so I can't tell you the difference either.
    I found a picture that probably showed a female flower, with one thick pistil. I should expect to find several tiny stamina in a male flower... I'll search for them in the next months...

  8. Yes, that whole male female plant thing is tough. We are trying to determine if our asparagus plants are male or female......The females will reseed rapidly while the males will not....it looks like we have both...

  9. I had several of these when I lived in Alabama. Unfortunately they don't grow this far north. A nice choice to add some color and variety to a shady spot.

  10. That looks very nice in the shade, I love that is also variegated. Lovely contrast to the surroundings.

  11. I had no idea they produced berries! This is the first time I've ever seen them.

  12. This gives me an idea for the back of our yard where the deer like to enter. Growing 6-8 feet would be perfect for a privacy screen in a shady area.

  13. I now know what to plant in the back area of the shade garden beside the grillplatz! Shade plants is a tough nut to crack and this one will add such color to the back during the winter months also! I must get out and look for these guys and dolls....

  14. Arg! Do you know how many plants are hardy only to zone 6 (I'm zone 5, at least in the old system)??? About 1,346,852, that's how many! Thanks for sharing this lovely shrub, though--I have quite a bit of shade and a groundhog to discourage, it would be perfect!

  15. Good morning, Tina! I totally agree about he beauty! I;d love to grow these just for those red berries! What a sight!

  16. Good morning all!

    Dan, Not hardy to your location at all. In fact, you can't even find them in southern Indiana-merely two hours from me!

    Janet, I find these shrubs excellent! They would do well in Virginia for sure.

    Jan, Yup-they make it each year.

    Dawn, Nope, you'll have to settle for the croton indoor plant for the same look.

    Linda, She has all the same sex and might want to find out which one it is so she can get the other and get some wonderful berries. They are really very attractive. I am layering them here in my garden but it is good they root easily. Love these shrubs!

    Cameron, The deer sure didn't eat those aucubas which is good. Too bad on the hostas. Pesky critters!

    Anne, I am steady looking at the flowers on mine. They are in bud now but will report back on what I find. I know there is a difference-I just have to see it. Then the nursery folks have to label the plants because what do folks do when they are not in bloom?

    Darla, Same deal! It is difficult but you surely need both for fruit. Good luck on the asparagus!

    Marnie, Yes, it is too bad they are not hardy up there. A nice shrub for the shade.

    Heather, It is a nice contrast and very welcomed in the winter.

    Jamie and Randy, Yes! Berries for sure but you need both the male and female. Therein lies the problem. Check it out and soon you'll have berries.

    Dave, These are very good. Never need watering and easy to care for. The deer won't eat em either.

    Skeeter, They would do great in your garden! Put some by the fence too for privacy. Easy to layer to make more.

    Monica, Now here's the thing with up north vs the south, you can grow many beloved plants up there that we can't grow down here. Does that help a bit? If not them maybe this, aucubas are barely hardy here so they are picky anyhow.

    Chandramouli, I was shocked to see so many berries. They are somewhat hidden but a nice surprise indeed. Very red.

  17. Always a joy to visit southern gardens, especially for those of us itching to get started. Happy spring, Tina!

  18. Hi Tina, Good post on one of the few broadleaf evergreens we have for shade. I do wish that they would get to it and start developing more varieties and hybridize the ones we have! Hope your day is filled with good gardening! gail

  19. That does add a lot of color. I had no idea they had berries. Anything that can grow under a pine tree is a tough plant!

  20. Tina, I have always loved seeing thses outside when we went south. I have a couple as house plants here. Did not know about them being male and female though-no wonder I never had any berries. Also, I didn't know they were poisonous! Thanks for a great post.

  21. Joey, You too and thanks very much!

    Catherine, A very tough plant indeed!

    Gail, Yes! Let's make some hardy ones for up north too while we're at it. Have a great day gardening too! I have to get to mine like now.

  22. Oh dear, sigh, being in zone 5, I will just have to enjoy this plant thru you. I love both the leaves and the berries. It is a beauty!!

  23. I've often wondered what good poisonous berries provide? They sure look quite edible on that Aucuba.

  24. So this is what is growing outside that I didn't know the name of. Thank you!

  25. Hi Tina,
    I sure like the variegation of the leaves of this plant. The berries would be a welcome sight in the winter also. I sure wish I had a bigger place. So many plants that I would like to try to grow.

  26. You had me sold on this plant, Tina, until I got to the end--poisonous to pets and isn't recommended for zone 5. That leaves me out. Too bad, too, because I have a large spruce that could use some plantings around it. Not everything will grow with all those roots around.

  27. Beckie, You are very welcomed. I was quite happy to see so many berries recently so thought I'd share them. You might grow the croton as a houseplant? A nice plant too.

    Mom, Yup, sorry, this is one plant for the south it seems. But it's okay-you still have lilacs; which are blooming here in some gardens. Too early!

    TC, I am thinking they simply provide the vehicle for the seed and don't want to be eaten. Can't say as I blame em:)

    Brenda, You are welcomed. It has a lovely sounding name too.

    Lola, these would work great in your garden. Berries are very welcomed this time of year for sure.

    Rose, Yes, this is one of those plants northerners have to sit out on. But it's okay, there are tons of plants for up there-you all can grow hostas-big ones!

  28. I guess I'm sitting out on this one too (because of my zone). It sounds & looks great tho even tho I have no experience with it. I never worry about planting poisonous plants because of pets (call me naive or whatever) but they seem to instinctively know which ones to avoid. Kids are an entirely different matter....

  29. I like the contrast of the red berries and the green/yellow leaf. I'm familiar with this plant, but had never seen the red. Lucky you for getting a male and female plant.

  30. They do have beautiful berries. It is strange that nurseries do not mark the plants male an female given it is so important. There must be many people who blame the bush for lacking berries yet are not aware of the reason. Imagine buying 6 plants and still getting no males - how annoying that would be!

  31. My favorite shade lover Tina! I really need to find a male for my lonely female plant.

  32. Sorry to burst your "not in my zone" bubble, folks, but Tina, you are absolutely correct about zone 6.

    I have two large (4-1/2 feet tall and nearly as wide) Aucubas "Mr. Goldstrike" growing here in Southern Ontario, Canada, USDA Zone 6A! If I have any secret to their surprising success, it may be this: there's a line of large scotch pine and spruce trees to the west about 20 feet away from them to provide a windbreak from the bitter westerly winter winds. A wooden fence would work just as well in my view. A few leaves may have a little winter burn, but the plant is lush and fully evergreen in their northern exposure where they receive only a couple hours of direct sun a day. So Dan (Zone 6B?), you can pick some up at Vineland Nurseries on Victoria Avenue here in Ontario - ask for Jim!

  33. S, I'll be sure to let Dan know. Thanks for the info!

  34. Karen, Norfolk, EnglandSeptember 28, 2010 at 3:43 AM

    Hi from the U.K.

    I have one aucuba and my reference book 'The Tree and Shrub Expert' by Dr D.G.Hessayon says "The best of the yellow-spotted varieties is the male A.japonica 'Crotonifolia' - more widely grown however is the female A.japonica 'Variegata'." Supplied with pictures of both for ease of identification. Thought it might help when reading the labels in the nursery.

    Karen, Norfolk, England

  35. Hi Karen, That does help and I will surely look for 'Crotonifolia' for the variegation. Thanks!

  36. I have four aucubas in shade at the back of my house on long island, ny. Two are female, two male & I have berries that add to the beauty when they bounce back after taking a beating over winter. Drop many leaves in spring.

    That's why I broke out in a blustery rash after raking all the leaves in the bed across the back of my house. Dr. gave me a shot of prednisone plus pills calling it contact dermatitis. This plant should be banned.

  37. I have a huge Aucuba in my backyard in shade, it came with the house I bought in 1979. It must be a male because I've never seen berries on it. It's grows so big (It's about 8 ft now) that I have to prune it every summer and I wish I didn't have to. I have too many bushes in my yard and would love to have less work to do. It gets too hot in Virginia to work in yard after May. It's easy to prune but I'm not sure which season is the right time to prune it. I've done it in spring, summer and fall.

    1. Hello from Tennesse! Aucubas bloom in early spring so typically you would prune right after bloom. If you prune before hand you'll be cutting off the buds. Pruning afterwards will allow you to shape the bush and stimulate growth of new buds for the next year's bloom. I would not prune at any other time unless absolutely necessary and then only selectively or you'll sacrifice the blooms. The thing about pruning is to look at buds and cut above the buds in order to direct the growth of those buds where you want growth. Pruning stimulates growth so while you are shortening your plant short term you may actually cause increased growth. I hope that makes sense. Good luck.