Pictured Above: A closeup of variegated Japanese aucuba. Its colorful leaves look like they have been sprayed with gold-colored paint, enabling the plant to stand out in low light.
By Susan Tito
Say the word “evergreen” and most people think of a pine, spruce, yew or other common coniferous plant. Don’t get me wrong, I love them all, but “evergreen” conjures up a different image for me: I think of broad-leaved evergreens — those with broad, flat leaves — which are just as beautiful, lush and versatile in the garden as the more familiar needled species.
In winter, broad-leaved evergreens such as rhododendron or boxwood provide welcome green to what otherwise would be a bleak landscape. There’s no disputing they serve an important function, but I demand more from my plants than year-round green foliage. At this time of year, I want color — and the more vibrant, the better.
One advantage of living on Long Island is that we can grow plants that our neighbors to the north can’t. Aucuba japonica, also known as Japanese aucuba, is one of those plants that does well here. It is a regal broad-leaved evergreen that thrives in horticultural zones 7-10. The variegated types in particular — ‘Gold Dust,’ ‘Gold Splash,’‘Gold Spot’ and ‘Golden Heart,’ to name a few —meet my criterion for good color.
A dense, upright shrub that grows 6 to 9 feet tall and nearly as wide, Japanese aucuba has glossy, dark green leaves that look like they have been splashed with gold paint, giving the plant a tropical appearance.
Although it is an Asian import, this beautiful plant doesn’t display the invasive tendencies of many non-native species in Long Island gardens. Even better, it doesn’t require much care. Japanese aucuba has good drought tolerance and takes well to pruning in late winter, but be sure to give it rich, well-drained soil and some shade, otherwise it will make its displeasure known.
Years ago, my mother gave me three Japanese aucuba shrubs. Knowing next to nothing about horticulture at the time, I planted them in a site with southern exposure. My mother knew that planting them in the sun was a no-no, but I needed to find out for myself.
It wasn’t long before my beautiful plants took on a bleached-out appearance! I had no choice but to relocate them to a shadier spot (where they remain today). Soon after they were transplanted, the Japanese aucuba rebounded, regaining their rich color.
Mother knew best!
Japanese aucuba shrubs are useful in foundation plantings, and they make great screens or shrub borders when grouped together. Just like holly, this broad-leaved evergreen is dioecious — meaning that plants are either male or female. Make sure to plant at least one male among several female varieties; the female plants will produce ornamental half-inch-long red berries beginning in autumn.
As much as I love Japanese aucuba, another broad-leaved evergreen has stolen my heart: Leucothoe fontanesiana ‘Rainbow,’ also known as rainbow leucothoe, a newcomer to my foundation garden.
The aptly named rainbow leucothoe has it all — good deer resistance, lovely springtime flowers that resemble drooping clusters of lily of the valley; arching red-tinted stems; and stunning glossy green, bronze-pink and cream variegated foliage that takes on burgundy tones in autumn. If that’s not enough to recommend it, this multi-stemmed beauty also is a manageable size, topping out between 4 and 5 feet tall with a similar spread.
Pruning in late winter or early spring will help keep rainbow leucothoe bushy and vibrant, as older plants sometimes take on a spindly appearance. Cutting them back severely will give them a much-needed shot in the arm and they will rebound quickly.
You will enjoy rainbow leucothoe in your garden in spring or summer but you will absolutely love it during winter. That’s when its vibrant color breaks up the monotony of too much green. This is a versatile garden shrub, plain and simple. It’s right at home in naturalized and woodland settings, looks great in mass plantings, makes a fine container plant and can even be used in floral arrangements.
At the very least, more gardeners should consider adding it to their beds as a specimen. Rainbow leucothoe can be a little hard to find in local nurseries or big box stores, so you might have to shop around a bit or consider mail order. However, there are so many reasons to recommend this plant, including that it is hardy in zones 5-8 and relatively easy to care for. Just give it partial shade and acidic, well-drained moist soil and it will be a happy camper.
And you will be, too — especially when you experience the colors of the rainbow in your own backyard this winter.
Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Communicators International. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.