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tough beauty: the shrub called eleutherococcus

Eleutherococcus (or Acanthopanax) sieboldianus 'Variegatus'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.

more on eleutherococcus

  1. Kathy says:

    That plant looks like what I have in my yard that I was told is called ‘snow
    on the mountain’ which I realize is only a visual moniker and not the real
    name. It also sends up spikes of white flowers in a cluster.
    I’ve always wanted to know the scientific label so perhaps you
    have solved that. Have you ever heard it called ‘snow on the mountain’?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Kathy and Irene. “Snow on the mountain” is apparently the common name of a perennial properly called Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegata,’ also referred to as goutweed or bishop’s weed (as you can see, common names are useless!)…a terrible weed…and it is also the common name for another herbaceous (non-woody) plant called Euphorbia marginata (which I think is an annual). The plant I am describing as mentioned is a 6- or 8-foot-tall shrub — a woody plant — so not herbaceous like the other two. Follow those links and see if one or the other is the plant you mean. The Aegopodium’s leaflets are more similar to the shrubs I am writing about than the Euphorbia’s.

  2. Bernie Wong says:

    It’s a great plant, I found mine at the local Master Gardeners plant sale toward the end of the day when plants were marked down “to sell”. Bought it not knowing what it would really do but happy now I have one.

  3. Leslie says:

    Agree, it is a great plant and have had one for years. But wanted to say that people here in central CT have been growing Aucuba outside with success for a few years so it is hard to z6a

  4. Cathy Keller says:

    I planted a non-variegated five-leaf auralia (also billed as a carefree plant!) 8 years ago because I had a shady corner that needed something and the leaf was lovely. My husband and I renamed it the “Jack-in-the-Beanstalk” plant because, if left unchecked for even a month, it sprouted halfway up the house and the thorns reached out and grabbed anyone who walked by! Last year we decided we had had enough and removed it…and removed it…and removed it! I finally covered the area with black plastic and rocks until this spring when I put other plants there. BUT I’m still removing shoots that come up weekly.

    Sooooooo…my question is: is the variegated variety better behaved? Maybe it was the sucker shoots that I didn’t pay enough attention to that caused it to take over. One thing is for sure, it grows no matter what you do to it!

  5. Robin says:

    I’m wondering if Japanese Beetles love it since it’s native to Japan. I’d like to replace some Cotoneasters, which the JB’s love, with these plants… what’s the verdict?

  6. Dahlink says:

    I’m Marco on the virtues of Aucuba. Here in zone 7 we sometimes have some browning after an especially cold winter, but it always bounces back. I just cut some branches this morning to fill out a flower arrangement. It’s easy to make more plants, either from planting the red seeds or rooting cuttings/

  7. Linda Pastorino says:

    Hi , I have one and never had Japanese beetles attacking it, ( have them attacking other things all July -August) I have had it in for three years and now this year is growing by leaps and bounds. Love it. Very easy care, 5B but near house so it’s protected and fence surrounds area from wind. I got it was three feet , two years nothing much now this year about 6 feet h.

  8. mindy says:

    This begins as a short rant and then experience sharing. Rant: I’m older than you, Margaret, so I feel PERfectly entitled to rant about VN. Yes, you heard me, VN. Vacillating Nomenclature. I first bought Acanthopanax var.from the late, great and grumpy Allen Haskell 15 yrs ago when he left it on his dryer for me to pick up after hours. I lost it fairly quickly. Ditto 2 more times, in various conditions. Now I have a small 3 yr.grove of them under J maples in pretty dense shade. Not thriving but alive and settled apparently. Just thinned the J maple Aconitifolium above them to help them. If it has been an iron plant for you, I am thrilled for you, but that has not been my experience. Zone 5ish here just north of boston,fyi. THE greatest iron and FLOWERing shrub for me, perfectly happy in DRRRRY shade, is Rhodotypos, jet beard. relative of kerria; such lovely bright white single flowers. Knowing you, you probably featured it 5 years ago!
    Always so impressed by your work on this site. After 30 yrs of gardening and 26 building this mini arboretum, your site is the only gardening one I follow. Your acuity, vast knowledge, sense of humor, and generosity of spirit are most appreciated!
    best,
    mindy

  9. Cynthia says:

    Please be aware, Five-leaf Aralia (Eleutherococcus sieboldianus) Also called: Acanthopanax sieboldianus ‘variegatus’, is considered to be an invasive plant in New Jersey. http://www.fohvos.org/pdfs/factsheets/Eleutherococcus%20sieboldianus_Invasive%20Plants%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf

    Also….Mindy’s plant Rhodotypos, Jet Bead, is also on the emerging invasive list. I’m really hoping more people will try to search out native plants or at least non-invasive non-natives.

    Aucuba does well in dry shade and, although it is not native, it is not considered to be invasive.
    Here’s a list of alternatives to invasive plants on Long Island. Some are native and some are not.
    http://ccesuffolk.org/assets/galleries/Agriculture/Commercial-Nursery-and-Landscape-Management/Presentation-Handouts/10-09-FINALBrochure-List-of-Alternatives.pdf

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Cynthia. In time it will sucker, so as mentioned in the story, those need to be cut/dug out by the gardener to keep the plant in place, as with any garden subject.

  10. mindy says:

    Invasives. This topic brings up a LOT of dissent in the gardening world.Professional botanists, horticultural agents and nursery people alike. Rarely do those experts in each state agree on what should be on that state’s Invasives list.
    Also, govt regulations are almost always written for the lowest common denominator of intelligence. The list makers in a state may all agree that the variegated or yellow or ppl forms of a plant- are NOT invasive (Berberis is a good example, on the Invasives list for most of New England) but the govt regs may insist on ‘keeping it simple’ by only listing genus and not getting into variety.The result can be that I can only find ‘local’ Berberis Helmond’s Pillar for sale in R.I, even though i have grown many varieties of yellow and ppl barberries for 30 years and have never once seen a seedling. Ditto rhodotypos. Another example: once when i posted about wanting a Mimosa tree (Albizia julibrissin) on GardenWeb, many Southern posters told me how invasive it is. But what they were not realizing is that mimosa is not on an Invasives list up here in Z 5 and colder- because the prolific seedlings that emerge from it in the South- do not survive our winters. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.

    I am not saying Invasives lists are worthless. I am saying that lists may have many worthwhile components, but that Invasives lists are not sacrosanct simply by way of their title and source. I endorse doing one’s own responsible research and decision making in own’s own particular location.

  11. Susan says:

    I put in a five-leaf aralia a few years back and although I like its looks, for me (in interior Rhode Island) it is a slow grower. I’m starting to think that it may be a plant for all habitats, but with a different personality for each location. Or maybe I just have ignored mine too much…
    And yes, goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegata,’) is a nightmare. It should be outlawed as it is a beautiful Trojan horse.

  12. Carole Clarin says:

    I recently planted Aralia cordata, ‘sun king’, a golden aralia to brighten up a shady spot in my garden. The tag indicates it grows to 3′ high by 3′ wide and that sounded perfect for the location. Now I’m beginning to wonder! Time will tell…

  13. Beth Urie says:

    In my one experience with the described plant – variegated auralia – it survived in a shady courtyard in Warren, VT, AND it suckered out within 3 seasons. That may be advantageous in some situations, but not in one involving weaving of auralia roots through other shrub or tree roots, at least not in that location.

    My own gut clenches regarding invasive non-native plants. In Central VT, we are fighting wild chervil and apparently loosing based on the roadside drifts of white chervil on display right now. I fear most people see it and love it, not knowing what it is and its effect on so many native and agricultural things.

    Regarding an educated plant person’s decision to use a non-native plant of any type, please consider the consequences of its escape into surroundings. I will not rant beyond asking this: if you plant a non-native plant, take responsibility to learn its habits, prevent its escape, and either get agreement from its next owner to do the same – or destroy it rather than abandon it.

  14. Cranberryrose says:

    Noted that Great Plants Pics LINK has Eleutherococcus sieboldianus ‘Variegatus listed as hardy to Zone 8, I am in zone 9b by the USDA map. We get some 95 – 103 degree days in the summer. I’m not sure I want to risk it trying it. How did you come by the Zone 9 listing for it?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Cranberryrose. Half my references say 8, half (including Missouri Botanical Garden and various reference books) say 9…there is never agreement, and I could say 4 to 8 or 9, meaning your 9B would rally be the extreme, and pushing it.

  15. Chris Samson says:

    Eleutherococcus sieboldianus is showing up in woods here around Cincinnati, including in nature preserves and county woodland parks. It seems on track to becoming invasive. Please don’t plant this.

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