How to prune aucuba

Aucuba Pruning – How And When To Prune Aucuba Shrubs

One of the most attractive home landscape plants is the Aucuba japonica. This slow growing foliage plant assumes a shrub-like habit with glossy pointed leaves and graceful arching stems. The blood red berries will persist on the female plant throughout winter and proper knowledge of how to prune an aucuba can assist in consistent fruiting.

About Aucuba japonica

Aucuba is not native to North America but does perform well in USDA plant hardiness zones 7 through 9. This ornamental shrub can be used singly as a focal point for the landscape, planted in groups as a hedge or used in containers when young. Japanese aucuba plants are also sometimes referred to as Japanese laurel because of the similar shiny, waxy leaves.

There are many surprising cultivars available, which delight with a host of variances in pigment and texture. Some of the more common ones include:

  • Crotonifolia has white spotted leaves.
  • Goldieana has predominantly yellow leaves.
  • Gold Dust or Variegata has gold flecks.
  • Nana is a dwarf form with a tight form and low habit.

Growing Japanese Aucuba Plant Cuttings

The shrub grows 3 to 8 feet tall but takes years to achieve full maturity. This slow growth habit means aucuba pruning is seldom necessary. However, you should pay attention to when to prune aucuba to keep the dense form and use the cuttings to propagate new plants to enliven the landscape. Dip the cut ends into rooting hormone and push them into a soilless medium, such as peat moss. Keep the plant in a warm, dimly lit area with light moisture. Transplant the cutting as soon as it has rooted.

Aucuba japonica will flourish in organically rich soils where dappled lighting is offered. The Japanese aucuba plant prefers a partially shaded location where soils are slightly acidic and moist, but well-drained.

When to Prune Aucuba

Due to the slow growth rate, Aucuba japonica rarely requires trimming. Although, the plant needs little maintenance, it does respond well to pruning to maintain size and a compact form.

The plant is a broadleaf evergreen, which should be pruned in early spring for best results. Light branch tipping or removal of dead wood can be done at any point in the year. A complete overhaul of a neglected Japanese aucuba plant is done in very early spring before new growth begins.

Refrain from fertilizing the plant prior to pruning to reduce the formation of young growth, which would only be cut off during the trimming process.

How to Prune an Aucuba

Aucuba pruning on young plants may only require a thumb and forefinger. Pinching off tip growth will help promote bushiness.

Use sharp, clean pruners for any maintenance project to ensure straight cuts and reduce the chance of disease introduction. Hand pruners are useful for removing errant growth and trimming back the stems to reduce the height of the shrub. Remove the growth to the next growing point for best results. Hedge trimmers are not recommended as they cut into the gorgeous leaves and reduce the ornamental value of the plant.


July 1, 2017

I have several aucuba and hydrangea growing side by side. The aucubas are growing so large and are beginning to overshadow the hydrangea, which I believe will impact their flowering. Can I prune the aucuba now even though it is summer? Since the aucuba doesn’t bloom, would it hurt to prune it gently now?

Aucuba plants don’t have one main trunk but numerous canes. Instead of top pruning a cane producing plant, the best method of pruning is to remove up to one third of the older canes at the base to alleviate the size. I would recommend taking out no more than one third at this time of the year, but it should help with the competition. Prune the larger branches back to the ground line. If you prune these plants from the top, they often branch out which makes them get a little top heavy and then they start to cascade down on their neighbors. If the hydrangea also needs pruning, thinning cuts again are what is needed, and should be done as soon as summer flowering ends.

(September 2015)

I have had this plant in a pot for years. What is it? It has black leaves so I moved it to a shady spot. Did it just get too much sun and heat?

The plant in question is an aucuba, commonly called gold dust plant. It is a shade plant and the leaves will turn black if it gets too much sunlight. It is a great evergreen shrub for the shade

(October 2010)

I have taken up some aucuba that I had growing on the north side of my house after they wilted and turned black. I also have some oakleaf hydrangeas that developed reddish brown spots on them in the same area. We cut them back a couple of years ago, raked up the old leaves and mulch, and they came back ok. We didn’t have any flowers last year, but this year we sprayed with a fungicide and we had lots of flowers. Now late in the season, but later on the red spots are back. What do we do to get rid of whatever it is that is causing our problem? Our tomatoes and peppers in small bed on the east side of the house are also affected. Would you advise replacing the aucuba with healthy plants or going to a more disease resistant plant?

How much sunlight were the aucuba getting–also the oakleaf hydrangeas? We have had several situations where trees were removed or damaged and the plants were simply getting too much sun. Aucuba turn black in direct sun. This year, many oakleaf and regular hydrangeas have leaf spots. It isn’t all that rare late in the season, nor would I recommend starting a spray program this late. If the problem starts early in the year then a fungicide might we warranted. Water is still the most vital factor for success in a garden, and this year that was a challenge. Lack of fertilization, heat and drought stress are probably your biggest problems with the vegetables. I do not think the same thing is plaguing all your plants, but it has been a tough gardening season.

(April 2010)

Are there shrubs (besides azalea, rhododendron, and camellia) that will grow well under pine trees?

Pines tend to have a high enough canopy that most shade and partial shade tolerant shrubs do well. Cleyera, aucuba, fatsia, hollies and boxwoods are all possible choices, but there are numerous others. Soil acidity can be a long-term concern under pines, but most of these plants are pretty tolerant.

(April 2010)

Are there shrubs (besides azalea, rhododendron, and camellia)that will grow well under pine trees?

Pines tend to have a high enough canopy that most shade and partial shade tolerant shrubs do well. Cleyera, aucuba, fatsia, hollies and boxwoods are all possible choices, but there are numerous others. Soil acidity can be a long-term concern under pines, but most of these plants are pretty tolerant.

(April 2010)

Are there shrubs (besides azalea, rhododendron, and camellia) that will grow well under pine trees?

Pines tend to have a high enough canopy that most shade and partial shade tolerant shrubs do well. Cleyera, aucuba, fatsia, hollies and boxwoods are all possible choices, but there are numerous others. Soil acidity can be a long-term concern under pines, but most of these plants are pretty tolerant.

(August 2006)

Can aucuba be trimmed to the ground and recover? We have a large stand of aucuba that is getting out of control. It gets plenty of water and minimal sun.

If aucuba, or gold dust plant, is planted in the right location (which it sounds like yours is) they can be a vigorous and tough plant. I would rather you gradually thin them out by removing up to one half of the old canes at the soil line in March. If you decide to cut them all to the ground, do so in early spring. Let them get through the winter and make sure all freezes have passed before pruning. Aucubas have taken a hit in cold winters even with all their foliage attached so you wouldn’t want to head into fall with a severely trimmed plant. Severe pruning is not something I would ever do on a regular basis, but they should come back after one time. They won’t be too attractive in the process. A gradual approach would be easier on the plant and more aesthetically pleasing in the landscape.

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Dear Neil: How should I prune my aucuba plant? It is too tall, but I am afraid I’ll ruin it if I cut it very much.

Answer: Prune it one stem at a time. Make each cut in a way that the remaining leaves will conceal the pruned branch. Regular Gold Dust aucuba should be allowed to grow to at least 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide.

If you’re considering trimming it more than that, you are probably making a mistake. Any pruning you might do should be done before the new spring growth, so don’t delay.

Dear Neil: I have seen a couple of Lacey oaks and I know you have suggested them occasionally. How tall do they grow? My son has property outside Austin and I’d like to give him one.

A: In the best of conditions (Texas Hill Country with moisture and deep soils) they can grow to 35 to 40 feet tall and 30 to 35 feet wide. However, they generally stay just a little shorter than that. It’s a wonderful medium-sized accent tree, especially in Central Texas.

Dear Neil: I have trimmed my Asian jasmine groundcover every year to keep it more regular in height. However, in the past two years there have been bare spots that never filled in again with the new spring growth. What might have happened?

A: It’s difficult to tell, but it’s possible that you cut too low and actually killed one or more of the plants. Asian jasmine doesn’t root along its runners, so each plant is still right where it was originally planted. It’s also possible that one or more plants got too dry in a past summer. Buy a few 1-gallon plants to fill in, and you should be back in business.

Dear Neil: I have moved into a townhouse. I have a nice patio and want to grow my tomatoes and herbs in pots. What kind of a soil mix would be best? What type of fertilizer?

A: You want a loose, well-draining and highly organic potting soil. You can mix your own using 50 percent brown Canadian peat moss, 20 percent finely ground pine bark mulch, 20 percent perlite or vermiculite and 10 percent washed brick sand or expanded shale for weight. Use a complete and balanced water-soluble plant food each time you water them. For the record, tomatoes do best in 10-gallon pots. Some folks try them in smaller containers, but they’re much more difficult to maintain.

Dear Neil: I have a weed that seems to have little purple flowers coming on it. The plants are growing really vigorously and look like they will take over my entire yard. What is it, and what can I do to eliminate it?

A: That’s probably henbit. It has small, tubular orchid-colored flowers and rounded, scalloped leaves. It’s such a weak grower by the time it starts to come into flower that you can usually get rid of it simply by mowing it off. Broadleafed weed killers also will eliminate it, but take care to follow label directions explicitly.

Dear Neil: I have a bromeliad that I received for Valentine’s Day. What do I do with it once it finishes flowering? How long will it bloom?

A: There are many kinds of bromeliads. In fact, Spanish moss and pineapples are in the clan. However, most of the ones that are sold as potted gift plants are in other genera. Almost all of them are epiphytes. That means they grow suspended from tree trunks and branches.

Enjoy your plant as long as it’s colorful. Then, when the colors begin to fade, you’ll probably see several new plants sprouting up around the base of the mother. Mama will gradually wither and die as the new “pups” grow with great vigor.

Pot them up individually and grow them on as new plants. In a year or so they will produce their own sets of colorful leaves and the cycle will start over. Bromeliads are exciting, easy-care houseplants so long as you meet their simple, basic needs and give them bright light.

Aucuba japonica

Medium to large sized hardy evergreen shrub with large glossy variegated leaves. A very tough garden shrub that is tolerant of a wide range of conditions, including shade.

Good dense rounded bushy habit, with large oval, yellow spotted, green leaves. Male plants have erect terminal panicles of purplish flowers. Females varieties produce compact clusters of bright red berries.

Planting and Growing Aucuba japonica

Very easy to grow shrub. Will grow in most soils, in full sun or partial shade. Thrives in almost any situation. Will tolerate deep shade, however, good berry production and variegation are better in more open positions.

Uses: Border, container, specimen shrub, under planting for deciduous trees. Ideal for town and coastal gardens.

All varieties of Aucuba are a good choice for difficult situations. Makes a ideal boundary hedge if planted 2-3ft (60-90cm) apart.

Both male and female plants need to be planted in close proximity to produce red berries in the autumn.

Any normal well-drained soil will do, including loam, chalk, sand and clay (will not tolerate water logged conditions).

Average height and spread up to 8ft (2.5m).

Average leaf size: 3-5in (75-200mm) long and 1.5-3in (40-75mm) wide.

Taking Care of Aucuba japonica

Aucuba is a low maintenance shrub that requires very little attention or pruning. Water well until established. Container grown plants must be watered regularly. Mulch with organic matter in spring and add a general fertilizer.

Pruning Aucuba japonica

Remove unwanted branches in spring and early autumn and trim to shape as required. Large leaf varieties are best pruned with secateurs rather than shears, to avoid cutting through the leaves.

Propagating Aucuba japonica

Propagate by cuttings of firm shoot tips in summer or take hardwood cuttings in October.

Popular Varieties of Aucuba japonica Grown in the UK

Various forms are available, many with useful variegated leaves.

Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata’

Aucuba japonica ‘Crotonifolia’ (spotted laurel)

Hardy variegated evergreen shrub (female), leaves speckled golden-yellow. Makes a dense rounded bush. Requires a male plant nearby to produce red berries. Height and spread: 8ft (2.5m).

Aucuba japonica ‘Maculata’ (spotted laurel)

Aucuba japonica ‘Nana Rotundifolia’

Compact female variety with smaller than usual green leaves, with the upper half toothed.

Aucuba japonica ‘Picturata’

A strikingly variegated male form with elongated central golden splashes.

Aucuba japonica ‘Salicifolia’ (Longifolia group)

A narrow leaved, free-fruiting form.

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