tough beauty: the shrub called eleutherococcus
ITS NEWISH NAME SOUNDS LIKE something you’d take antibiotics to kill off, but in fact Eleutherococcus sieboldianus ‘Variegatus,’ or five-leaf aralia, is the plant that you can count on for spots where everything else dies. (It should have been called cast-iron plant, I think, but Aspidistra long ago laid claim to that common name.)
A splashily cream-variegated shrub of maybe 6 or 8 feet high and wide for any condition but waterlogged soil—sun to substantial shade—it’s moderately deer-resistant, too. It’s so cooperative, you can even shear Eleutherococcus as a hedge. I bet you have a spot for such a wonderful and willing thing, deserving not just of problem-solving garden spots but also front-and-center placement.
I first saw Acanthopanax, as Eleutherococcus was then known (and still is to those of us who can’t get with all the name changes), in the garden of my friend Marco, who knows that a garden needs “doers,” as he calls reliable types. (Tip: One of his other doers is Aucuba japonica, a broadleaf evergreen with varying degrees of yellow variegation and the apparent ability to grow even in the dark. Great filler—but not hardy for me in Zone 5B; it’s rated as Zones 7-10.)
Eleutherococcus (Zones 4-8 or 9), which is deciduous, has lately been elevated to a position of even deeper reverence at Marco’s place. A pair of plants are espaliered flat against two lengths of wood fencing—each trained shrub pinned and pruned flat into a dramatic, eye-catching fan of white and green.
Which got me thinking about adopting some, if not to train, perhaps, then at least to brighten up a stretch along the roadside, and some other shady spots in particular.
Other details: Technically, Eleutherococcus—a Chinese native of the Aralia family or Araliaceae, along with some of my most beloved shrubs and large perennials in the actual genus Aralia—would flower and set fruit. But you’d need both sexes for the latter, and apparently females are more often what’s sold, I have read. The plant has thorns, is generally arching in its habit, and it also will sucker eventually—keep an eye out and cut or dig them out them at the base.
Ask your local nursery to get you this wonderful creature. Feeling impatient, I got my landscape-sized plants at Broken Arrow; I see that Lazy S’s sells it mail-order, as does Forest Farm and Avant Gardens, when it’s in stock.