Aucuba, a Shrub for Shade
Aucuba japonica is a slow-growing, evergreen shrub that eventually tops out at 6 to 10 feet tall and about 4 to 6 feet wide. It forms a dense, rounded to oval form, and large oval- to lance-shaped leaves may be solid green or variegated. Leaves are opposite, simple, glossy, thick and leathery, and range anywhere from 3 to 8 inches long.
Plants are dioecious, so the females cannot bear berries unless a male is in the vicinity to provide the necessary pollination. If a male is nearby, the female plants may bear half-inch scarlet fruits that mature in fall and persist throughout the winter. Purple flowers produced on both the male and female plants are visually insignificant, though that is perhaps an unfortunate choice of words, as they are quite essential if the showy red fruits are to be produced. Female flowers are borne close to the leaves, while the male flowers are lifted away from the leaves on upright clusters.
Aucuba is hardy in USDA zones 7 to 10. It prefers partial to full shade and well-drained, moist, highly organic soil. Underneath deciduous trees is not a good place as the plant needs shade in the winter as well as in the summer. Leaves exposed to sun will turn black.
Aucuba is tolerant of pollution, salt, drought, and coastal conditions. Pruning, if needed, should be done in spring before growth begins. Any pruned branches can be used for rooting new plants, for they strike roots easily, even in water. Stems used in floral designs often root before the design is spent.
Insects seldom bother aucuba, but several diseases are problematic. Root rot, Southern blight, and fungal leaf spots may occur. Preventative measures include making sure that the soil is well drained and planting aucuba in a place with good air circulation and yet protected from harsh winds.
Use aucuba in the landscape to light up shady corners. It can be useful as a foundation plant if shade is sufficient. Because of its preference of low-light situations, it can even be grown as a houseplant. Floral designers often include aucuba in their landscapes and cut pieces frequently to use in their designs. Not only is it long-lasting in water, but it is attractive and makes a bold statement to designs.
Aucuba is a member Garryaceae, a small family containing only two genera, Aucuba and Garrya. At one time it was placed in Cornaceae, the same family as dogwood. Some taxonomists gave it its own family, Aucubaceae. Only recently have molecular phylogenetic research techniques strongly suggested its inclusion in Garryaceae (APG III). Like many other plants, the generic name also serves as the common name.
Several cultivars are available, including, but not limited to the following:
'Crotonifolia' - large leaves finely to heavily speckled with yellow
'Crassifolia' - a male form with dark green leaves; ‘Macrophylla' is very similar but is a female selection
'Mr. Goldstrike' - a male selection with leaves that are heavily splashed with gold markings
‘Nana' - a smaller selection growing only 2.5 to four feet tall and wide; the female bears more fruit that is easily seen as it is held above the foliage
'Picturata' - shows a solid yellow blotch in the middle of the leaf and usually small yellow flecks on the remainder of the leaf
'Rozannie' - a dwarf form with green leaves capable of growing about 3 feet tall and wide; perfect flowers can produce large bright red fruit without the assistance of a male for pollination
'Serratifolia' (sometimes called 'Dentata') - grows 4 to 6 feet tall, has very large teeth along the leaf margin, and leaves are solid green
‘Sulfurea' or 'Sulfur' grows 4 to 6 feet tall and about as wide; a wide golden yellow edge with dark green center; female
'Variegata' or 'Gold Dust' - the most commonly seen cultivar; leaves yellow-flecked; female