Garden Detective

This lookalike shrub is friendly to pets, wildlife

Garden detective: What’s this mystery plant? It’s a Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica), also known as false castor bean.
Garden detective: What’s this mystery plant? It’s a Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica), also known as false castor bean.

Experts tackle readers’ garden questions.

Q: Can you tell me what this is? It grows outside my kitchen window, does not seem to be affected by our coldest nights (or perhaps it’s just sheltered enough not to be bothered), and is attractive to the ants. It’s about 5 feet tall, but hasn’t changed much in size in the 16 years we’ve lived here.

Barbara Eychaner, Carmichael

Bee garden writer Debbie Arrington: That’s a Japanese aralia, also known as false castor bean. (And I have one in my yard, too.)

Despite its monickers, this plant is neither a true aralia (although it is related) nor a bean, but part of a very small genus named Fatsia. Its other nicknames include Formosa rice tree and Glossy-leafed paper plant.

The most common is Fatsia japonica, native to southern Japan and Taiwan. Its botanical name is derived from the ancient Japanese word, fatsi, meaning “eight,” referring to the deeply lobed leaves that look like giant eight-fingered hands. In Japan, this shrub is called Yatsude, meaning “eight hand.”

In California, this attractive evergreen shrub grows pretty fast, but then tops out at about 6 feet tall and wide. A shade lover, it can reach 10 feet tall in ideal conditions. Although Fatsia looks tropical, it’s hardy down to at least 20 degrees and (with protection) can take colder temperatures, too.

Although it can withstand sun, Japanese aralia prefers shade and rich well-drained soil. Its glossy green leaves can reach 16 inches across and look impressive in the dry shade garden. Once established, this shrub is relatively drought tolerant and requires deep irrigation only twice a month.

In late summer and early fall, its unusual cream-colored flowers look like fuzzy little drumsticks, attracting bees. Those flowers mature into inky purple berries, food for birds.

Unlike the look-alike (and poisonous) castor bean, Fatsia is not toxic to cats, dogs or people.

The Bee’s Debbie Arrington is a consulting rosarian and lifelong gardener; darrington@sacbee.com, 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Garden questions?

Questions are answered by master gardeners at the UC Cooperative Extension services in Sacramento and Placer counties. Send questions to Garden Detective, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852. Send email to h&g@sacbee.com. Please put “Garden Detective” in the subject field and include your postal address. To contact UC Extension directly, call:

  • Sacramento: 916-875-6913; 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Monday-Thursday
  • Amador: 209-223-6838; 10 a.m.-noon Monday-Thursday; website: ceamador.ucdavis.edu
  • Butte: 530-538-7201; 8 a.m.-noon and 1-5 p.m. weekdays
  • Colusa: 530-458-0570; 9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m. Tuesdays; website: cecolusa.ucanr.edu
  • El Dorado: 530-621-5512; 9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Friday
  • Placer: 530-889-7388; 9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Thursday or leave a message and calls will be returned; website: pcmg.ucanr.org/got_questions
  • Nevada: 530-273-0919; 9 a.m.-noon Tuesday-Thursday or leave a message
  • Shasta, Tehama, Trinity: 530-242-2219; email mastergardener@shastacollege.edu
  • Solano: 707-784-1322; leave a message and calls will be returned
  • Sutter, Yuba: 530-822-7515; 9 a.m.-noon Monday-Tuesday and 1-4 p.m. Thursdays
  • Yolo: 530-666-8737; 9-11 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, or leave a message and calls will be returned
  Comments