The Bestest Season Ever: Variegated Five-Leaf Aralia

Few shrubs, hardy or tender, deciduous or evergreen, look as delicate and graceful as variegated five-leaf aralia. 


Eleutherococcus sieboldiana Variegata overall 060518 915


Each of the five leaflets is individually margined with creamy white; the clusters of tiny green-white flowers can't compete with the foliage show even in close-up.


Eleutherococcus sieboldiana Variegata flowers fingers 060518 915


The foliage is brilliant when seen from a distance, too. As in the picture below, of a client project in New England, Eleutherococcus sieboldianus 'Variegatus' also has particular eye-popping presence when used en masse


Eleutherococcus sieboldiana Variegata Triedman 0311 915


Young stems have bright silver-white bark, so when vigorous plantings of five-leaf aralia are coppiced annually, the less colorful older growth is removed. The result is a dramatic display from fall to early spring. 


Eleutherococcus sieboldiana Variegata 03 30 15 Ron Boss 915


Variegated five-leaf aralia truly is a year-round star. Even better, it isn't tempermental or, even, fussy, thriving in almost any soil, in almost any exposure from deep shade to full sun. Plus, it's deer-proof, making the shrub a garden essential wherever it's hardy.



Here's how to grow this easy perennial:


Latin Name

Eleutherococcus sieboldianus 'Variegatus'

Common Name

Variegated five-leaf aralia


Araliaceae, the Aralia family.

What kind of plant is it?

Hardy deciduous shrub.


Zones 4 to 8. 


Mult-stemmed and vase-like.  

Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

Four to six feet tall and wide.


Fluffy but also dense when mature; can be slender and irregular when young.

Grown for

its delicate & brightly variegated foliage: Eleutherococcus sieboldianus 'Variegatus' looks so lacy and frilly; it is the most "girly" variegated shrub hardy in Zone 6 and colder.


its astonishing toughness and flexibility: See the horizon-wide range of acceptable conditions in "Culture," below. Plus, the shrub is hardy from Maine to Georgia.   


its imperviousness to browsers: The foliage itself may not be palatable—but, even if it were delicious, hidden spines at the bases of the leaves also provide sharp deterance. Five-leaf aralia is a godsend anywhere—but especially in gardens beset by deer.

Flowering season

Early Summer, but the small flowers are completely obscured by the bright, textural foliage. Grow Eleutherococcus sieboldianus 'Variegatus' for its sparkling foliage spring into fall, and—when coppiced, as in the second "How to Handle It" box, below—its silvery bark and fountain-like form fall to early spring.

Color combinations

The green and white foliage goes with everything, as does the silver bark.

Plant partners

The profuse, bright white, delicate-looking foliage of variegated five-leaf aralia presents a major opportunity for combinations with plants that can provide almost any strong contrast, whether in foliage size or texture or, if flowering, in bloom size, profusion, array, and color. The shrub's prowess as a large-scale groundcover combine with its shade tolerance to make it a peerless underplanting for large shrubs and trees that can provide such contrasts. Ginkgo biloba (see the second-to-last picture in the article) is one option: Aesculus x carnea, Cotinus coggygria 'Velvet Cloak', Broussonetia papyrifera 'Golden Shadow', Euonymus carnosus, Ilex opaca, Liriodendron chinense, Magnolia grandiflora, and Tetrapanax papyrifer, are just the tip of the rest of the iceberg. Magnolia grandiflora would be particularly exciting, in that the tree's sporadic, large, pure-white blossoms would call out to the aralia's white-splashed foliage below.


When growing variegated five-leaf as a specimen, not a group, consider ornamenting the shrub itself with a contrast vine. For example, the large, intense, violet flowers of Clematis 'Romanika' would be stunning against the frilly five-leaf foliage. 'Lady Murasaki' would be as exciting. Choose other clematis that are, like these two, in the Group B category: They can all be cut down to lowest buds at the same time you coppice their supporting shrub itself. Group A's wouldn't work, because they don't need or want pruning, whereas many of the Group C's, which require that annual massacre, grow much too large for a shrub that might only be four or five feet high by September. Most Group B clematis will be the Goldilocks Solution.


The silvery, bare winter stems of coppiced Eleutherococcus are an entirely different (but not incompatible) additional opportunity. If possible, back the shrub with tall evergreens, and front it with low ones. (Notice, in the picture above, that I fronted the swathe of five-leaf with Cephalotaxus.) If you're OK with pachysandra—and I certainly am—you could underplant the shrub(s) with it. Of course, if using Eleutherococcus as an underplanting to an evergreen tree, you're halfway home already. 

Where to use it in your garden

Variegated five-leaf aralia looks dainty enough to highlight sophisticated ornamental plantings as a specimen, and would be a stunning foil to partner plants that are dark-leaved, or whose foliage is large or smoothed-edged. See Plant Partners, above.


It's so tough, flexible in its range of tolerated exposures and soils, as well as durable, that  it can also be used as best-hope-of-survival filler in otherwise grim circumstances, such as skimpy beds with miserable soil in urban settings that range from dark to sunny.


I've also planted this shrub en masse in large-scale settings where a thick, cheerful, but also indominable bulk of growth about five feet high was just what's needed. See one of the pictures, above, where a large block of this variegate is punctuated by a grove of fastigiata ginkgos. The silver-grey bark of first-year stems makes a dramatic showing all winter.


Variegated five-leaf aralia is strikingly accommodating. It can succeed in deep shade as well as full sun, even in soil that is unpromisingly heavy, compacted, shallow, or tending toward dry, and in climates where summer weather is pitilessly hot and steamy. No wonder this shrub is a stalwart of urban gardens.

How to handle it: The Basics.

Plant in fall through spring whenever the soil is workable; this hardy deciduous shrub does not need to be coddled. It is quite drought-tolerant when established but, if planting in spring, provide supplemental watering if needed. By mid-summer, the shrubs should be fine on their own for the long haul.


Young shrubs can be a bit gawky, and you can encourage more profuse growth directly from the base by cutting all branches down to a foot in late winter the second season after planting. And maybe the third. At any time during the growing season, and at any age of the shrub, feel free to cut out the occasional branch that, literally, is a shooter, and arches unacceptably beyond all the others. Whenever pruning shrubs that are not intended to form a hedge—see the next "How to Handle It" box, below, for those instructions—try to cut stems all the way to the base, rather than cutting off just the offending projecting tip. You will be repaid in winter, when the then-fallen foliage will have revealed lovely wand-like stems, instead of the more awkward growth that branches part-way up due to hasty warm-weather tip pruning.

How to handle: Another option—or two!

The bark of first-year stems is strikingly silver, and their unbranched, wand-like habit is graceful, indeed. If you plant five-leaf aralia in generously supportive circumstances—not the scrappy, crappy soil and settings the species is legendary at tolerating—new growth will be profuse. Capitalize on that vigor by cutting the whole shrub down to stubs in late winter or early spring. You'll be rewarded by a fountain of new stems that, in my experience, can become full-length by September. After the leaves drop in fall, a striking shaving-brush of silvery stems is revealed. See the final picture, above, in the article.


Variegated five-leaf aralia can also be grown as a hedge. Space plants two feet apart, and allow a full calendar of free-range growth before beginning a pruning regimen. You have two choices. Easiest is to prune anytime in fall into winter after the leaves have fallen and the shrubs are dormant. If your hedge is already well-formed, this pruning will reveal its best geometry, and keep that on display until growth resumes in the spring. If your hedge is still young, this cool-season pruning is still a good idea, in that you can see just what you're cutting off as you trim back growth that's already full height. Also lightly prune growth that isn't yet tall enough, so that it branches out on the way up come spring.


Fastidious gardeners may also want to give their five-leaf hedge a mid-summer trim, by which time it will have become shaggy, indeed. New growth will emerge, to "reshag" the hedge, a bit, until the frosts of fall. If you have the space, though, you can omit this second cut, letting the hedge grow fluffier and fluffier all summer.  

Quirks and special cases

Individual shrubs can differ in their amounts of variegation. Because this shrub is propagated by cuttings, a given supplier's inventory tends to duplicate that of their stock plant or plants. This isn't a problem when buying shrubs first-hand at the nursery: You can see just how variegated they are. If you purchase via mail-order, though, there's no telling how intense the variegation will be, so you might be surprised (as I was) that it isn't what you expected.


The clone I tend to buy from this wholesaler is about the brightest; see it shimmering in the second-from-the-bottom picture in the article. I've seen other variegated five-leaf that were much much less colorful. When using the shrub in multiples, buy all of the same clone.


Eleutherococcus sieboldianus doesn't develop reliable or even interesting fall foliage. Sometimes the leaves become yellowish, other times, they fall enough while still green. For me, the spectacular performance the other eleven months of the year is bountiful over-compensation.    


To my knowledge, specific variegated cultivars are not available despite the wide range in variegation among the stock plants used for propagation.


Variegatus has become so popular—justifiably—that the straight species is now nearly unavailable. The latter's leaves are plain green, true, but it is larger at maturity: around eight to ten feet high and wide. This shrub's prowess at forming, even in unpromisingly shady settings, a deer-proof hedge or free-range groundcovering bulk, make the current scarcity of the straight species of Eleutherococcus sieboldianus regrettable: Sometimes what's needed is a strictly-background plant, not a bright star. This is a striking flip of the usual marketing priority, whereby the variegate is rarer as well as more desirable. I need to enlist a willing nursery to do custom propagation of the straight species, so I can once again use it in the background at client projects—and, also, so that it can re-enter the trade.


On-line and at retailers. 


By cuttings.

Native habitat

All species of Eleutherococcus are native to eastern Asia; E. sieboldianus is native to China.

FacebookTwitterRSS Feed

Stay in touch!


Sign up for twice-monthly eNews, plus notification of new posts:


* indicates required