Eleutherococcus sieboldianus 'Variegatus'

variegated five-leaf aralia

Variegated foliage, leaves that are of mixed colors, inevitably brings out the stubborn side of gardeners (and we all know just how stubborn gardeners can be …). Either variegated foliage is a horticultural gift worth braving civil wars and scaling foreign mountains for, or, it is a mutant blight brought into culture by yet another crazed fanatic with no appreciation for the natural world. I have personally witnessed dear friends come near to blows over this issue, which is only topped on the "gardener blood pressure index" by the correlative debate over contorted growth habit. Setting personal and philosophical arguments aside, however, there are some beautifully variegated plants in the world. Many of these interesting color forms were found as spontaneous changes in the growth of the original plant type (changes in growth that had occurred without any interference from humans) and then were propagated by horticulturists. One variegated plant that is unarguably handsome is Eleutherococcus sieboldianus 'Variegatus', variegated five-leaf aralia.

The botanical name of this wonderful plant brings up another topper on the "gardener blood pressure index." Up until the last six months, this plant was called Acanthopanax sieboldianus 'Variegatus', but taxonomists (as they are so wont to do) decided that it was actually a different genus and so changed the name. You will still find variegated five-leaf aralia listed in most arboreta and nursery catalogs as Acanthopanax, however, as it takes years for these changes to finally trickle through all of the plant world. Nonetheless, in spite of the frustrations of keeping up with the fickle taxonomists, five-leaf aralia is a good example of why it is important to know botanical names. Variegated five-leaf aralia shares a piece of its common name with members of the genus Aralia, including Aralia spinosa, the Hercules' club or Devil's walkingstick. While Acanthopanax (five-leaf aralia) and Aralia are both members of the same botanical family, they are obviously not the same plant. Just calling for an aralia could land you with any number of very different plants. This is a good illustration of why scientific names, tedious as they may seem on many occasions, can be critical for accurate identification of a plant at the nursery, in the garden center, or on a garden plan.

Five-leaf aralia is a tough, handsome, native of Japan. It is an upright deciduous shrub whose branches tend to arch outwards and over with age. The overall shrub, if left to itself will eventually become a rather large, 10" by 10" mass in the shape of a broad, upside-down U, but it can be readily pruned to retain the upright character of a younger plant. The tan stems are rough and bumpy and there are thin, but significant thorns at the leaf nodes. Five-leaf aralia flowers in late spring with 4"–6" tall, rounded, branched clusters of tiny whitish flowers emerging from the ends of the branches. The flowers mature into shiny black fruit which is rarely seen in gardens because the flowers are not usually fertilized.

The foliage of the species is a pretty emerald green and the leaves are divided into five to seven leaflets (hence the common name) with a shape much like the leaves of Aesculus spp., buckeyes, but much smaller, with leaflets only 2" long. The foliage of 'Variegatus' is the same size and shape and the species, but the color is a strikingly refreshing blend of creamy white and emerald green. Unlike some variegated plants, where the variegation is sporadic in different areas of the foliage, variegated five-leaf aralia's delightful mix of green and white is carried uniformly throughout the whole plant. There is an almost equal amount of white and green which adds to the visual impact in the landscape. The quality of the variegation stays beautiful throughout the growing season—a special plus since many variegated plants lose their color, scorch, or become somewhat fungus ridden during the stressful, hot, wet, summers of the southeastern United States.

Five-leaf aralia is an extremely adaptable plant. It will perform well in many landscape sites, from dry sand to heavy clay, from full sun to shade, and is hardy from the coast to the mountains. It has no serious disease or insect pests. Five-leaf aralia is especially tolerant of urban settings with extreme conditions and higher pollutant levels. Five-leaf aralia grows very rapidly and does tend to sucker so needs tending in very small spaces but may be slowed down under stress and takes repeated pruning in stride. Variegated Ffive-leaf aralia is about as tough as its green parent with more dramatic landscape interest and somewhat slower, more readily controlled growth rate. Variegated five-leaf aralia can be propagated from softwood cuttings rooted under mist, or by division of the parent plant. The species can also be propagated from seed but requires a complicated pretreatment involving a sequence of warm followed by cold temperatures.

There is another species of Eleutherococcus called Henry's aralia, Eleutherococcus henryi (previously Acanthopanax henryi), which is a native of China. It is about the same size as E. sieboldianus, but with more coarse, upright branching, and better fruit set in the landscape. A cultivar called Eleutherococcus henryi 'Nana' only reaches only about 4'–5' in height. Variegated five-leaf aralia is not very common in southern nurseries yet, but it is being produced by some specialty nurseries in the state, (for example, Holbrook Farm and Nursery) and is one of the selections for the joint plant introduction program of the NCSU Arboretum and the North Carolina Association of Nurserymen, and so should be widely available in the next two years as it moves up through the program. The uniformly variegated foliage of variegated five-leaf aralia makes a dashing addition to a mixed shrub border, both in sun or shade, and is easy to blend with many different colors and textures in the garden. It could be a refreshing summer specimen of its own, as well as a unique foil for the more fleeting displays of many flowering perennials. At the NCSU Arboretum , variegated five-leaf aralia adds its wonderfully colored foliage to the Mixed Shrub Border and the White Garden. Only a personal visit to these gardens will illustrate the actual fascination of blended emerald and cream in the landscape.