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A unisexual, evergreen shrub of rounded bushy form, 6 to 10 ft high, consisting of a thicket of erect or arching, little-branched stems. Branchlets stout, fleshy, quite glabrous and green, bud-scales hairy at the tips. Leaves opposite, leathery, narrowly oval; 3 to 8 in. long, 11⁄2 to 3 in. wide; glabrous, green and glossy on both surfaces, with usually a few large teeth towards the apex; stalk 1⁄2 to 2 in. long. On the male plant the flowers are produced on an erect, terminal panicle, 2 to 4 in. long; each flower 1⁄3 in. across, with four (occasionally five) purplish petals; flower-stalks downy. Fruits only borne by the female plant, and produced in compact clusters 2 or 3 in. long, each berry roundish oval, 1⁄2 to 5⁄8 in. long, bright scarlet.
Native of Japan; introduced by John Graeffer in 1783. This first plant was the well-known yellow-spotted form (‘Variegata’) and was female. Owing to the absence of pollen it never set fertile fruit, but small, dry, abortive fruits were occasionally produced. In the decade 1856–66 many plants were introduced from Japan, and among these were male and female forms of the normal green-leaved aucuba. The first plant to be seen in full fruit was shown by Standish in 1864; it was a green-leaved female sent by Fortune in 1860, pollinated by a male, also green-leaved and introduced by him at the same time. Male plants were also brought home by J. G. Veitch from his Japanese visit and others, green and variegated, were introduced to Europe by Siebold and distributed in Britain chiefly by William Bull of Chelsea. A fruiting specimen of the old variegated clone was first figured in the Floral Magazine in 1866.
By the end of the century the aucubas, male and female, variegated and green, had become common garden evergreens, especially in the new suburbs, where they were valued for their great tolerance of a smoky atmosphere, and small plants in pots could be bought from costermongers’ barrows in the streets of London.
Today the aucubas, like the monkey-puzzle, are out of favour, but the pendulum has swung too far. Green-leaved females make fine berrying shrubs, and the aucuba has one merit in greater degree than any other evergreen: this is its capability of thriving under the shade of trees. Even under a beech, lime or horse chestnut, where grass will not grow, it maintains a cheerful aspect. This means, of course, that it can not only manage without direct sunlight, but can fight its way against the roots of its big neighbours. To get fruit in abundance a moderately sunny spot is desirable, and of course plants of both sexes must be contiguous.
There are many slightly different forms of aucuba that have originated as sports or seedlings, and vary chiefly in size, shape and marking of leaf, also in the size and vigour of the shrub. The number of forms that were given Latin names and distributed was very large and the nomenclature is hopelessly confused. Many variegated forms which were given names are apt to revert to the common spotted form. Cuttings or even small branches, root with great freedom. The following varieties, most of them green-leaved, are a selection of those still in commerce:
† cv. ‘Nana Rotundifolia’. – Of relatively low and compact habit, with almost unspeckled and roundish leaves, toothed in the upper part. Female.
† cv. ‘Picturata’. – Introduced by Fortune and shown by Standish in 1862, this is the type of a group of aucubas with a central variegation. None of these are common now and they may be unstable. The original ‘Picturata’ was male, its leaves rather twisted, with a large irregular blotch of yellow in the centre. ‘Bicolor’, imported by Siebold, was similar, perhaps the same clone, also male; and others were ‘Elegans’ (female) and ‘Elegantissima’ (male). The name ‘Picta’ was used for two cultivars: one may have been the same as ‘Picturata’, while the other was an aucuba also known as ‘Limbata’ (see ‘Sulphurea Marginata’ below).
† cv. ‘Rozannie’. – Flowers bisexual, producing fruits even in the absence of a male plant (though more freely when cross-pollinated). A spreading, fairly compact shrub to about 3 ft high; leaves green, broad-elliptic, with a few coarse teeth near the apex (Dendroflora, No. 21 (1984), pp. 81, 87).
† cv. ‘Sulphurea Marginata’. – Leaves with a yellowish margin. Female. This received a First Class Certificate when shown by William Bull in 1865 and may be the same as the aucuba called ‘Limbata’. It is still in cultivation as ‘Sulphurea’, a name used originally for a cultivar with a yellowish variegation all over the leaf.