The mixed fortunes of aucuba

It seems distinctly odd to be writing about an evergreen that many people despise when there are so many colourful flowers popping up around us, but I was so struck by this aucuba the other day at Altamont garden that I thought I should stick up for one of the most abused and derided garden plants. It looks rather splendid here.

There are two or three aucuba species although only Aucuba japonica is seen in gardens. Aucubas used to be in the cornus family (Cornaceae) which was sensible because of the opposite leaves and small, square, four-petaled flowers, but the meddlers have been at work and now it is in Garryaceae which seems a lot less obvious to me.

Aucubas are not plants with great floral impact though I must confess that I find beauty in the clusters of brown, tiny flowers with four triangular petals and yellow specks of pollen in the male flowers (males and flowers are on separate plants – dioecious). But female plants, and the few hermaphrodites, produce large, red berries that seem unpalatable to birds so last through the winter well into spring.

It will come as no surprise that this plant comes from Japan:  it grows in woods, often in the shade of conifers. It is also found in Taiwan, Korea and South East China but usually in warm temperate areas at low elevations. It may be due to this that, after introduction to Europe (England)  in 1783, it was regarded as tender and was a stove house plant. I guess that as the plants got bigger and space was at a premium, some were thrown outside and when it was discovered that they would cope with an average winter it then became a staple evergreen of the Victorian garden where its sombre appearance would complement other popular plants such as ferns, megaseas (bergenias)  and funkias (hostas). Urban gardens and parks were filled with them and because they tolerate hateful conditions, though often covered in soot and sooty mould as a result of aphids dropping honeydew from limes above, they survived but were despised as grim and grimy.

All this despite the many variegated forms which are really quite bright. I must admit that I don’t particularly love the spotted forms, leading to the name of spotted laurel, but they are hardly ugly. The large leaves mean this is not a good hedging plant and the growth, though upright at first, spreads with age. Plant in sun and an aucuba looks as comfortable as a British tourist on the second day of their Spanish holiday. Although dark, dry shade is tolerated, light shade and decent soil is preferred.

The biggest problem is that, usually after a cold winter, many stems die back with drooping black leaves. This appears random and I am not sure what causes it but these stems can be cut out and are hardly noticed after a short period.

Time to look again at this common and easy evergreen? I think so.





2 Comments on “The mixed fortunes of aucuba”

  1. sueturner31
    April 19, 2017 at 4:38 pm #

    I have a plant that was here when we moved in 39 years ago. It’s right at the bottom of the garden tucked into a corner doing no harm and here it will stay. It gets a trimming back now and again and most years I have berries practically into the early summer. It is now hiding an awful leylandii that has been planted by my neighbours, I may sneak behind the aucuba and take my clippers and chop off the growing point of said offending tree….. Sue.

    • thebikinggardener
      April 19, 2017 at 5:21 pm #

      I think ‘doing no harm’ is about as enthusiastic as most people get! It may not incite great passion and at least it is better than leylandii. I hope your neighbours didnt plant their leylandii to screen your aucuba! I think you should get out your clippers and remind your neighbours that aucuba has root secretions that kill conifers!

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