Gold Dust (Aucuba japonica)

Aucuba, Blotched-Leaved Laurel, Gold Dust, Gold-Leaf Plant, Japanese Aucuba, Japanese Laurel, Japan Laurel, Spotted Laurel, Variegated Laurel

The Japanese Laurel is most recognizable for its lustrous foliage. When cared for properly, its leaves grow long and waxy, donning a green base color with small splotches of light yellow dispensed throughout. In the proper conditions, the greens and yellows of these leaves will be preserved all year long.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Aucuba japonica was introduced into England in 1783 by Philip Miller’s pupil John Graeffer, at first as a plant for a heated greenhouse. It became widely cultivated as the “gold plant” by 19th-century gardeners. The plants being grown were female, and it was a purpose of Robert Fortune’s botanizing trip to newly opened Japan in 1861 to locate a male. It was located in the garden of Dr. Hall, resident at Yokohama, and sent to the nursery of Standish & Noble at Bagshot, Surrey. 

The firm’s mother plant was fertilized and displayed, covered with red berries, at Kensington in 1864, creating a sensation that climaxed in 1891 with the statement from the Royal Horticultural Society’s secretary, the Rev. W. Wilkes, “You can hardly have too much of it”. A reaction to its ubiquitous presence set in after World War II.

Aucuba japonica, commonly called spotted laurel, Japanese laurel, Japanese aucuba or gold dust plant (U.S.), is a shrub (1 – 5 m, 3.3 – 16.4 ft) native to rich forest soils of moist valleys, thickets, by streams and near shaded moist rocks in China, Korea, and Japan. This is the species of Aucuba commonly seen in gardens – often in variegated form. The leaves are opposite, broad lanceolate, 5–8 cm (2.0 – 3.1 in) long and 2–5 cm (0.79 – 1.97 in) wide. Aucuba japonica are dioecious. The flowers are small, 4 – 8 mm (0.16 – 0.31 in) diameter, each with four purplish-brown petals; they are produced in clusters of 10-30 in a loose cyme. The fruit is a red drupe approximately 1 cm (0.39 in) in diameter that is avoided by birds.

The golden variegation patterns are inherited from the mother plant. If the female plant is variegated, the seedlings will be variegated regardless of what the male looks like. If the female plant is green and male is variegated, the seedlings will be green. This indicates that the cause of variegation is not under the control of the DNA of the nucleus, but probably under the control of the chloroplasts where photosynthesis occurs. Chloroplasts float in the cytoplasm of each cell and are inherited from the female parent.

II. How to Grow and Care

Assuming growth conditions are ideal, this plant can reach its maturity in up to 20 years. It generally grows to be ten feet tall. Because the stem of a gold dust plant is thin and spindly, it may require staking if you allow the plant to grow to its potential height.

Sunlight

The Japanese Laurel prefers dimly lit environments, preferably away from windows and other sources of bright, direct sunlight. Direct sunlight could cause the plant to become brown and withered, and while indirect sunlight is generally tolerable, too much of it could lead to the plant’s leaves losing some of their deep green coloring.

Look for places around your home that can provide this style of lighting such as corners of your home that offer some distance from any windows. If you feel that the only place to set your plant is nearby a window, make sure that said window is covered with a thin curtain or other piece of fabric to create a form of filter.

Temperature and Humidity

Gold dust plants prefer cooler climates and can even survive in frigid temperatures that have plummeted to as low as -5 degrees Fahrenheit.

Indoor plants should never be placed near a hot window or any other source of heat and should ideally be kept in a room that is always cool.

Watering

The native habitat of Aucuba japonica is in moist woodland areas, thickets, valleys, and along stream beds. In your garden, it will grow best in moist but well-drained soils with established plants having good drought tolerance.

Mature shrubs will only need to be watered once every few weeks but more often in drought-like conditions. Newly planted gold dust plants should be watered weekly (or even twice a week) through their first growing season.

For a specimen grown indoors as a houseplant, water soil when the top layer dries to a depth of approximately two inches. In containers that have been placed outdoors for the summer, keep the soil consistently moist.

Soil

Gold dust plants grow best in moist, organically rich, well-drained soils. However, they can tolerate average to nutritionally poor soils, even clay soil.

Fertilizing

Gold dust plants respond well to feeding, but don’t overfertilize them because that can cause soft growth and increase the chance of winter injury. Feed gold dust plants using either a slow-release or water-soluble fertilizer in the early spring when the plant begins to bloom.

Fertilize your container-grown gold dust plant once per month in the growing season, using a 3:1:2 ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium for best results. For the amount to use, follow the product label instructions.

Planting Instructions

Aucuba grows in a wide range of soils and conditions, is tolerant of poor soils and pollution, but doesn’t thrive on waterlogged ground. The ideal soil would be fertile and moisture-retentive yet well-drained. Plant ideally in spring or autumn. 

Dig a hole larger than the roots, remove the pot and unwind any congested roots, spreading them out in the planting hole. Plant so the top of the root ball is at ground level, backfill with excavated soil and firm in using the heel of your boot. Water well to settle the soil around the roots and keep moist during dry spells for the first growing season. To grow aucuba in pots, use a soil-based potting compost.

Pruning

Though this is a slow-growing plant, it can get leggy, so it’s best to consistently prune in the spring to help control its growth. If you’ve planted gold dust as a houseplant, you should also be sure to prune it to its desired height.

Propagation

The gold dust shrub is dioecious, which means that each plant is a male or female gender. Take cuttings from both male and female plants (label them appropriately) to ensure the female plants will be pollinated by a nearby male to produce fruiting red berries in the fall. Here’s how to propagate the gold dust plant:

  • With sharp, clean pruners, take a cutting of about four inches and remove the lower leaves.
  • Root it in a pot filled with soil mixed with vermiculite and peat moss. Be sure the leaves are above the soil.
  • This plant will readily grow from cuttings, so keep checking for roots to form. New growth on the plant is the best indication that it has rooted successfully. Once they do, the plant can be repotted or planted as you wish.

Potting and Repotting

When potting a gold dust plant, choose a container with adequate drainage holes. Container material isn’t important when the plant is small but avoid very heavy materials if you plan to move a mature potted plant around your home or patio. To avoid repotting more than every two to three years, start with a container that is six inches larger than the plant’s root ball and repot the plant when it begins to become root-bound. At that point, go up in size to a pot that is only a few inches wider than the original. When repotting, use high-quality potting soil that offers good drainage.

Overwintering

When planted in the proper zones, your gold dust plant will survive the winter without additional protection. If the plant is in a container, bring it inside when the temperatures begin to drop below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut back on watering in the winter months; allow the soil to dry between waterings.

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Gold dust shrubs are susceptible to a few different fungal diseases, including both root and crown rot. Make sure the plant is never left sitting in standing water (and don’t water from above), as fungi can also infect the leaves. They can also attract insects such as nematodes and mealybugs.

Common Problems 

If you see your gold dust plant turning black, it usually means the roots are stressed. This is most likely due to excess moisture in the soil, overwatering, or that it has been exposed to more sunlight than it can handle. If the plant is in a container, try repotting it in a different container with better drainage. If it is outside, try watering it less often or moving it to a shadier location.

III. Uses and Benefits 

Japanese laurel (Aucuba japonica) is popular for its attractive two-colored leaves and red berries. One of this plant’s best features for gardeners is that it is tolerant of full shade and grows well in dark areas where other plants struggle. Its dense growth also makes it suitable for hedging. It makes for a great addition to informal or cottage gardens but also does well as a houseplant. Plantain lilies, fatsias, and blue hydrangeas make great partners for this plant.

Gold Dust (Aucuba japonica) Details

Common name Aucuba, Blotched-Leaved Laurel, Gold Dust, Gold-Leaf Plant, Japanese Aucuba, Japanese Laurel, Japan Laurel, Spotted Laurel, Variegated Laurel
Botanical name Aucuba japonica
Plant type Perennial
Hardiness zone 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b
Growth rate Slow
Harvest time Fall
Height 6 ft. 0 in. - 10 ft. 0 in.
Width 6 ft. 0 in. - 10 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Dappled Sunlight (Shade through upper canopy all day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Purple/Lavender
Leaf color Gold/Yellow