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Lindera obtusiloba • Japanese Spicebush

If you have a predominantly shady garden, there are two courses of action you can adopt. One is to whine and complain and sit around feeling sorry for yourself because you can’t grow good roses. The other is to get busy and find out what plants will both thrive in the conditions you can provide and at the same time help lighten the gloom. While there’s no shortage of gloom—dispersing plants in the herbaceous realm—variegated hostas, pulmonarias, brunneras, symphytums, and sedges are all invaluable—the pickings get leaner when it comes to shrubs, and especially shrubs with emphatic, eye-catching foliage. There are a few, however. One of my favorites is Lindera obtusiloba, even though it waits until the fall to crank up the wattage. Not that it’s too shabby earlier in the season: from late spring through summer’s end, this rounded, large-growing native of Japan, China, and Korea is clothed with lustrous, four- to six-inch, dark green leaves that may be entire (that is, unlobed), three-lobed, or two-lobed, like a mitten. (This variety of leaf shapes may remind you of our native sassafras, which, unsurprisingly, belongs to the same family, the Lauraceae.) Then, in October, the show begins. From top to bottom, L. obtusiloba turns a brilliant yellow, even in the shade, and holds its color for a good two to three weeks. If you have enough room for both a male and female specimen (L. obtusiloba is dioecious), you’ll also get a crop of handsome red fruits that eventually turn a glossy black.

Even though my own plant of L. obtusiloba grows in the shade of a large red oak, the shrub doesn’t need shade to thrive—it is also perfectly happy in full sun, and isn’t particular about soil type. Although a constant, moderate level of moisture is ideal (especially when a young plant is settling in), established plants will put up with both occasional dry spells and periods of excessive wetness, provided drainage it good.

As much as I look forward to L. obtusiloba’s annual display of fireworks, I also value it for the contrast its bold foliage offers in my garden to its fine-leaved neighbors (a variegated privet and an enkianthus) and for the way it serves as a visual anchor for the sea of hellebores and pulmonarias that swirls around its base. Considered individually, L. obtusiloba’s virtues may seem modest, but they add up to a shrub of the first rank.

The Essentials

  • Type of plant: deciduous shrub
  • Family: Lauraceae (laurel family)
  • Origin: Japan, China, and Korea
  • Height: 10–12 ft.
  • Habit: rounded, multistemmed
  • Leaves: ovate, cordate at base, entire to three-lobed, 4–6 in. long, conspicuously three-veined, deep green turning brilliant yellow in fall
  • Flowers: small, greenish yellow, not very showy, borne in early spring
  • Fruits: 1/4 in. in diameter, red turning to black, borne only on female plants
  • Hardiness: USDA Zones 6–10; Sunset Zones 4–6, 31–34, 39
  • Propagation: by softwood cuttings in midsummer or seed given a three-month cold stratification period

A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 98, no. 7 (September/October 2001).