This palmate-leafed plant brings the tropics to your garden

Japanese aralia is a tropical-looking flowering shrub or small tree native to Japan.

Customers who visit my garden will invariably ask me if I have a favorite plant. My standard (and somewhat flippant) reply is: “They are all my favorites, or I wouldn’t have planted them in the first place.”

In reality, what qualifies as my favorite depends on the time of year — whether it is sun or shade, wet or dry, annual or perennial, shrub, tree or bulb. In other words, I have lots of favorite plants for lots of locations in my garden and, at some time during the year, each plant in my garden becomes my favorite for that brief period of time.

It just so happens that at this exact time of year my favorite plant(s) are my Fatsias. Let me tell you why.

Fatsia japonica, or what is commonly known as Japanese aralia, is a tropical-looking plant native to Japan that is completely hardy for us. It is a broadleaf evergreen, like a rhodie or holly plant, that keeps its leaves year-around and therefore always looks fabulous, regardless of the season.

Fatsias have large, glossy, palmately leaves that resemble your palm with 8 to 10 fingers. The leaves can reach 12 to 15 inches across, and the species is a bright green. This color scheme has several variations, including white or yellow woven into the pattern of the leaf. More on that later.

Fatsias are so adaptable that they will grow literally anywhere in the garden, but they’ll look their best with full to partial shade (the hot afternoon sun will bleach the leaves yellow). They will form a multi-stemmed shrub or small tree, reaching 10 to 12 feet or taller, with bare stems and a cluster of leaves on the top.

They really do have a very tropical feel about them. This time of year, they put out multiple terminal clusters of creamy white flowers. I would say the flowers are more architectural than beautiful but, then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

After the flowers fade, shiny black berries will form — although in all my years, I don’t ever recall actually seeing any berries.

In addition to their adaptability, one of the things I like about Fatsias is that, if they get too tall, you can hack them to the ground. They will branch out and grow all new foliage, so it is easy to keep them at the size that works best for your garden. If you have to resort to this severe type of pruning, it is best to do it around March, so the plant has all season to recover.

While I have never seen an aphid on a Fatsia, sometimes you will encounter scale or mealy bugs, both of which can produce sooty mold. If this happens, it is usually an indicator of stress and poor air circulation. (On the flowers I have seen mostly flies, which sounds gross, but they have no objectionable scent, so no need to worry.)

Two stunning varieties that I have growing in my garden — that you should consider for yours — are “Spider’s Web,” with white splotched foliage (in full bloom as I write), and a new one from Monrovia called “Camouflage,” with large patches of yellow in the center of the leaves. You should be able to find both of these varieties in most area garden centers this time of year. Check them out.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at

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Stop in for wreath-making fun offered every day through Dec. 16 at Sunnyside Nursery, 3915 Sunnyside Blvd., Marysville. For more information or to sign up, visit

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