Schefflera delavayi
Plant spotlight

Schefflera delavayi

Who doesn’t know a schefflera. Whether you’ve abused them as a houseplant or strolled underneath them at your favorite Florida theme park, most of us have had a personal experience with a schefflera. They are members of the Araliaceae…a large plant family that includes members on several continents, and in both tree and perennial forms. Aralia family members include the house plant, false aralia, the herb ginseng, and its best-known cousin, English Ivy.

I’m always curious to find and try relatives of plants I already know and grow, so back in the early 1990s, I set my sights on scheffleras. Most of the scheffleras I knew were from my house plant days; the tree-form Schefflera actinophylla and the dwarf Schefflera arboricola. As I began to research the genus, I discovered that most schefflera species were completely unknown in cultivation, despite many being native to moderate to high elevations in their native Asia. At the time, only a couple of the 38 Chinese native species existed in Western cultivation.
In the years since my schefflera infatuation began, I’ve made several trips to Asia in search of new scheffleras, while other plant explorer friends have done the same. In 2003 I was finally able to acquire my first new species – Schefflera delavayi. This 25’ tree hails from up to 9000’ elevation in the mountains of South Central China, and word of its winter hardiness was already the stuff of legends in plant geek circles. In the years since, I’ve acquired twelve other schefflera species, all of which I’m sad to say, made great compost. I learned that scheffleras from low elevations die in our winters, while scheffleras from high elevations die in our summers. I marveled in 2008, when I first saw the stunning Schefflera taiwaniana in the mountains of Taiwan, only to later discover that it has no tolerance for temperatures above 90 degrees F. This would become a theme I’d see repeated over and over again and I checked each schefflera off my “been there, killed that” list.
This brings me back to my first acquisition, Schefflera delavayi, which still thrives in our garden after two decades, including some brutal summers and cold, icy winters.  Our original plant is now 8’ tall x 8’ wide, so don’t think of this as a fast-growing shade tree.  Instead, think of Schefflera delavayi as an attention-getting evergreen specimen. We’ve grown Schefflera delavayi in both sun and shade, and while it thrives in both, we see some foliar burn after cold winters like this recent one where temperatures drop into the single digits. The same plant growing in more shaded conditions showed no leaf damage. We’ve also grown it in both wet and dry soils, and it far preferred the drier site. Not only is the foliage of Schefflera delavayi great, but in mid-October, the plants are topped with huge, terminal flower panicles that are filled with an amazing array of pollinators. Each 2’ wide x 18” long panicle is made up of hundreds of small white flowers…quite a sight as the fall season winds down. 
With the advent of more widespread DNA testing, plants, as well as people are spitting into the proverbial cup, to track down their ancestors. Just like many of us are surprised, the genus schefflera got quite a surprise, when many of its members were found to be adopted years earlier and were not even closely related. It seems the first schefflera to be named hailed from New Zealand and parts of the nearby South Pacific, and the plants most of us know as schefflera actually belong to a completely different genus, Heptapleurum. Well, ain’t that grand.
No matter what name you use, I hope you’ll consider adding one of these unique evergreen trees to your garden when you find them available.

– Tony Avent

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