Family: Araliaceae Origin: Australia, New Guinea, and Java. Naturalised in South East Qld and other places.
While this is an Australian native, the Umbrella tree or Schefflera actinophylla can end up being a nightmare in cultivation and in some applications. Knowing where to plant this beauty can help you avoid many of the common problems that are associated with the Umbrella tree. But, despite its invasive qualities (which we’ll mention lower in this article), It is a good native tree in some ways. Many local animals rely on this tree for its nectar rich flowers and fruit, and the leaves are enjoyed by native tree-kangaroos. In parts of the world where this tree can’t grow outside, it’s a very common houseplant.
This evergreen tree is unique in appearance. It’s a smaller tree, reaching about 15 metres in height. In the wild, it’s often found growing literally ON other trees (epiphytic), which explains its aggressive root system. The adventitious roots are required for it to reach soil.
It bears its fruit high above its canopy on 2 meter high racemes. Overall, the Umbrella tree has a round form at the top.
This tree usually forms a few trunks per plant. The trunk is light grey or tan and slightly cracked. It’s usually gnarled a bit as well. As new trunks gain girth the trunk widens, contributing to the damage this tree causes to nearby structures.
The juveniles have green stems with lenticels and prominent leaf scars while aged leaders turn grey.
There is little branching due to strong apical dominance in each leader. This can make it difficult for homeowners to restrain their height, since they can only be lopped.
The flower body of the plant is probably its most recognizable attribute. The flowers themselves aren’t especially showy, but they are borne on large racemes and held high above the entire tree like a fountain. Racemes are light red in color.
They usually have 12 petals though this can vary from seven to eighteen. Each one measures from 3-5mm long. They have the same number of stamens as petals.
The leaves are thick and green and are compound, forming in groups of seven.
The fruit are brightly colored yellow and red or sometimes purple and are very attractive to wildlife. They too are held high above the tree’s canopy on the same racemes that the flowers were on. Birds and other animals are commonly found feeding on the fruit, where the seed inside passes through the digestive tract and is spread as the animals defecate.
Umbrella trees have incredibly invasive root systems. They have enormous strength and consistently cause damage to structures. Both the trunk flair and root collars are formed above ground, giving some hint at the root structure below, as the following photo demonstrates.
Schefflera actinophylla is easily started from fresh seed, with some scarification to help speed up the process as the seeds are spread around by animals after they eat the fruit that contains it. Cuttings are also easily taken and rooted.
Great care must be taken to allow this tree some room, especially for its very aggressive and possibly destructive root system. Not a good plant for planting in urban landscapes or near foundations, it’s a great tree for planting in natural areas and large parks or pieces of land where it can’t come into contact with manmade creations. It needs bright full sun exposure, and benefits from regular watering and feedings of all-purpose tree food. Check with local laws about planting this tree, as it is advised against cultivation in some areas for being destructive. But in the right space, this Australian native tree is an interesting and ecologically significant tree that bears many benefits beyond ornamentation in the landscape. Complete removal if around buildings or sidewalks is necessary. In Brisbane and southern states, it’s probably out of place because of its:
- ecological invasiveness, and its
- invasive roots.