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Aucuba is one of the genera of the dogwood family, or cornaceae. There are only three or four species of this small genus; the most common is A. japonica, called the Japanese laurel. Aucuba plants are hardy, versatile shrubs that gardeners plant in the garden where hardy or in containers and as houseplants in colder climates. The plants are native in warm to semi-tropical climates in regions from the Himalayas to areas of eastern Asia.
Growers usually raise the plants for the large, ornamental leaves and large red berries. The plants are dioecious, meaning that a female flower must be fertilized with pollen from a male plant to produce fruit. At least one cultivar, rozannie, has bisexual flowers. Female cultivars of A. japonica include crotonifolia, gold dust, and hillieri. Crassifolia, lance leaf, and Mr. Goldstrike are some of the male cultivars. Gardeners who want the showy berries need to research this before buying plants.
The leaves of most Aucuba plants are large, up to eight to ten inches (20 to 25 cm) long, and usually have toothed edges. Most of the leaves are glossy, solid green, but some species and cultivars have colorful leaves. A. japonica has many varieties that have yellow or gold splotches on green leaves.
The plants generally have small flowers. Most cultivars of the Japanese laurel have purple to red-purple flowers in panicles, or stalked spires, rising up to four inches (ten cm) tall. In contrast to the deep-colored flowers, the male anthers — the swollen tip of the stamen where the pollen grains — are yellow.
The species and cultivar determine how growers use the plants. Generally, Aucuba plants are tolerant of pollution and smoky atmospheres and survive the salty winds of the coastal regions, making them ideal for plantings in semi-tropical cities. Other planting applications include border, hedge, and specimen plantings in gardens. Growers also raise them as houseplants and greenhouse specimens. All parts of the plants may cause stomach upset if digested.
The plants generally do well in all types of soil with the exception of waterlogged soil. In tropical, hot areas, these plants appreciate shady or partially shady areas. In the areas where temperatures drop to the lowest degree suggested for the cultivar, gardeners usually provide them with protection from cold winds. For the best success at raising Aucuba plants, a grower should research the cultivar's needs.
Generally, stem cuttings and seeds are the two most popular ways of propagating Aucuba plants. Seeds sown in a cold frame in the autumn usually have the best survival rate. Some growers prefer to root semi-ripe, or immature, stem cuttings in the summer. Nurseries sell the plants in containers or burlap-wrapped root balls.