Cleyera japonica 'Tokyo Sunrise'

variegated Japanese cleyera

Evergreen shrubs are the backbone of the southern garden from hollies to camellias and tea-olives to fatsia. Among the top tier of garden-worthy evergreens is Cleyera japonica (Japanese cleyera). Cleyeras have been somewhat confused in the nursery industry with the somewhat similar Ternstroemia gymnanthera masquerading as Japanese cleyera for many years until it was sorted out by NC State's Paul Fantz, Ph.D.

The genus Cleyera is not well understood and may contain as many as 25–30 species according to some botanists but is represented in the United States by a single species. Japanese cleyera ranges over a large part of warm temperate Asia from China's southern provinces (Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu, Jiangxi, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Xizang, Yunnan, Zhejiang) to Japan, South Korea, Nepal, Taiwan, north India, and Thailand where it grows as an understory shrub in woodlands and thickets on mountain slopes.

In the landscape, cleyera tolerates shade to full sun and prefers a moist, well-drained, organic soil but is tolerant of less than ideal conditions and will tolerate periods of drought once well established. It is grown mainly for its evergreen presence as a shrub although it can grow to small tree dimensions over time much like Osmanthus heterophyllus (holly tea olive). The small, white flowers are not very showy but can be nice when observed from close quarters and the resulting black fruit is similarly attractive but not overtly ornamental. It is best used as a single specimen to provide some weight to the landscape or as a hedge. It can tolerate relatively hard pruning as a hedge.

The JC Raulston Arboretum has been growing cleyera for many years and we have always appreciated this plant's subtle beauty and workhorse adaptability. We recently received the cultivar 'Tokyo Sunrise' and have quickly fallen for this outstanding variegated Japanese cleyera. This new selection of Japanese cleyera has a bold white edge to each leaf. New growth is flushed with orangish-red coloration precisely the color of sunrise off the east coast of Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun. This form appreciates some protection from afternoon sun but otherwise appears as tough as the species and should tolerate temperatures down to the single digits. Look for the JCRA's specimen in the Asian Valley near the entrance to the Japanese Garden.