On gardening: Japanese aucuba stunning in the winter landscape

For winter landscape interest, it is hard to beat the Japanese aucuba. A few years ago this struck home to me as we were filming a TV segment at one of my favorite small gardens, the Biedenharn Museum and Gardens in Monroe, La. I was stunned with their aucuba, who knew they could produce such a stunning winter look?

Now you are probably thinking I am talking about the variegated foliage that is almost as colorful as a tropical leafed croton. In a way you might be right but what I am referring to are the cherry red fruit that are giant-sized compared to a holly. My guess is that even if you’ve grown the aucuba you might not have ever seen the fruit.

If you have an aucuba or two and wonder why you do not have red fruit, then it’s probably an issue of sex. Aucubas are like many other shrubs in that male and female varieties must be in the garden to get the prized red, winter fruit.

Though the aucuba comes from the Himalayas and Japan it is one of the finest shrubs for the landscape in zones 6-10. The variegated forms brighten up the shade garden better than almost any other shrub. In fact, all aucubas are made for the shaded to part-shade woodland landscape. Many of you may even find it strange to know they are in the dogwood family.

Though we typically think of the gold spotted or variegated varieties, there are several green-leafed selections as well. The variegated female selections will produce the large red fruit but it is the green-leafed selections that almost give a Christmas-like appeal when loaded with the fruit. They almost look artificial.

Place your aucuba plant in partial shade to shade; they abhor full sun. Prepare the soil by incorporating 3 to 4 inches of organic matter, and two pounds of a 5-10-5 fertilizer per 100 square feet of planting area, tilling deeply.

Dig the planting hole three to five times as wide as the rootball but no deeper. When you dig these large holes, you are opening the door to the fastest root expansion and establishment in your bed. Place the plant in the hole and backfill with soil to two-thirds the depth. Tamp the soil and water to settle, add the remaining backfill, repeat the process and apply mulch.

Moisture is critical the first year on newly planted shrubs, so water deeply when required. Feed four weeks after transplanting with a slow-released fertilizer like an 8-8-8 or 12-6-6 at one pound per 100 square feet of bed space. Fertilize established plantings in March.

Prune lightly anytime to shape and keep bushy. To generate new canes, remove older ones near the base during the late winter. Occasionally, mealy bugs can be a problem so treat as needed, but don’t let this deter you from planting some.

Try planting aucubas boldly in groups around fatsia for a tropical look. I have seen green types with the fruit grown very effectively near camellias like Professor Charles S. Sergeant that has dark-red, anemone-type blossoms. Bedding plants work quite well as companions. Grow lilac-colored impatiens in front of the more brightly variegated forms.

If indeed you want the winter landscape-enhancing red fruit, then variety selection is critical. Unfortunately, many aucubas are sold generically, but there are about 25 varieties in the trade. This means it is possible for your favorite garden center to locate male and female varieties for you if they don’t have them already.

Norman Winter, executive director of The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, is author of “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations in the Garden.”

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