The Japanese aucuba is an evergreen shrub that is often grown for its variegated foliage, though there are also varieties with solid green leaves. Each leaf is peppered with gold spots, inspiring the alternate common name of the gold dust plant. It also has brilliantly colored red stone fruits that will be present during fall and winter.
Important note: This is a poisonous plant so should not be planted where children or pets will be able to access it.
The scientific name for this plant is Aucuba japonica. It is part of the Garryaceae family. The only other genus included is Garrya. Some include it in the Cornaceae family, which includes dogwood trees, shrubs, and subshrubs.
Names associated with this shrub include aucuba, Japanese aucuba, Japanese laurel, gold dust plant and spotted laurel.
Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones
Japanese aucuba is suitable for planting in Zones 7-10. If you have a location that offers some shelter from the elements, you may be able to grow this outside in Zone 6, though it may be easier to use it as a container plant there. It originally comes from China and Japan.
Size and Shape
At maturity, it will be 3-15' tall and 3-9' wide, generally forming into a rounded shape.
For best results, plant in a spot with full sun or partial shade. It can also be grown in full shade if desired. If you get high temperatures during the summer, choose a spot that will have some shade to help protect the foliage. New leaves may also turn black in full sun locations.
The main attraction for this plant is the shiny leaves. Each one may be up to 8" long. They are a rich green and, depending on the variety chosen, may be dotted with varying levels of golden yellow spots.
The small purple flowers are produced in clusters during the start of spring on both male and female plants. You can tell the difference between the two based on the flower placement. Female flowers bloom close to the leaves, while the males are formed above on panicles and are upright.
The female varieties produce red drupes in autumn that are up to .5" long. These can help ensure that bright color is present during the winter since the fruit will stay on through that season.
Choose a protected spot in cooler regions as dieback may occur when the plant is hit with winter frost. You could also grow this in a container and bring it outside each spring. Remember to harden off your plant so it has a chance to acclimate.
If you want at least some of your shrubs to have the beautiful red fruits, make sure to plant both male and female varieties as this plant is dioecious.
Japanese aucuba is able to withstand at least some salt in the air and soil, so you could use this in a location near the ocean. It will also do well in urban areas where the roads are sometimes salted to keep away snow. Air pollution is also tolerated.
This is also able to handle periods of drought once root establishment has occurred.
This versatile shrub can be planted in almost all soils. It does not like to have wet feet and may develop root rot if the soil is wet most of the time.
This species is propagated through the use of seed germination and cuttings.
Maintenance and Pruning
Little maintenance is needed for the Japanese aucuba. You may need to cut a branch here and there if it is heading in a direction outside of the desired shape. This should be performed at the end of winter or beginning of spring. There is also pruning of any parts that have dead, damaged, and diseased wood.
Pests and Diseases
There are not too many problems found on this shrub. You may encounter aphids, scales, mealybugs, nematodes, leaf spots and southern blight.