Shrub or small tree, 2–10 m, usually single-stemmed. Bark brownish; stem densely covered with sharp, needle-like spines, 0.5–2 cm long. Leaves bipinnate, 60–100 × 50–75 cm, stipulate; stipules lanceolate or linear, 1–2 cm long; petiole purplish, 30–45 cm long, usually unarmed; rachis purplish, unarmed, with pairs of accessory leaflets at each division; two to four pairs of pinnae, each with 5–11 leaflets; leaflets membranous to papery, 6–14.5 × 3–8 cm, ovate to oblong, rarely lanceolate, upper surface dark green, shiny and glabrous, lower surface glabrous with easily erased white wax, 12–18 lateral veins per leaflet, margins serrate, apex acuminate. Inflorescences terminal, paniculate, 35–50 cm long, unarmed, purplish; primary branches 10 or more, each 10–20 cm long; umbels 1.5 cm diameter, with 12–20(–30) flowers. Flowers white or purplish white, fragrant. Fruit a reddish green to black berry, 0.3–0.5 cm diameter, with persistent radiating style arms. Flowering June to August, fruiting September to November (China). Wen 1991, Xiang & Lowry 2006. Distribution CHINA: Anhui, Fujian, Guangdong, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangxi, Sichuan, Yunnan, Zhejiang. Habitat Along roadsides or streams, in dense thickets or on rocky cliffs between 1000 and 2600 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 8. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration NT150.
In its young stages at least, Aralia echinocaulis is a most striking plant, with huge bipinnate leaves and dense rich brown spines on its stem. Such young plants have been used to great effect by garden designer Jimi Blake at Hunting Brook Gardens, Co. Wicklow, among bold perennials and grasses. They were grown from seed collected under the number GCCE 259 by the 2002 Glasnevin Central China Expedition (in association with Wuhan Botanical Gardens and the Chinese Academy of Sciences), that traced some of Augustine Henry’s collecting areas in the Three Gorges area before they were irrevocably flooded by the new dam. As a wild tree growing in mountain thickets and secondary scrub in the Badong area of western Hubei, A. echinocaulis is a single-stemmed plant to 5 m (S. O’Brien, pers. comm. 2007), but in cultivation it has a slight tendency to sucker. As a result of the Glasnevin Central China Expedition it is represented in several Irish gardens, and seems to be hardy under normal winter conditions there.