Umbrella Tree

Schefflera actinophylla

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.

A couple of Umbrella trees photographed in Greenslopes, south of BrisbaneArboriculture

Growth Form

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.

Trunk

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 divided trunk of an Umbrella treeFlowering

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 flower of an Umbrella treeFoliage

The leaves are thick and green and are compound, forming in groups of seven.

Fruits

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.

Roots

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.

invasive Umbrella Tree roots

Management

Propagation

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.

Cultivation

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.

We recommend tree removal in most cases.
An Umbrella Tree planted too close to a building.

An Umbrella tree breaking a fence with its roots.

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Comments

  1. Lynne says

    Hi David.
    We have a large umbrella tree to be removed. After cutting it down what is the best and most effective Poisen to use to kill it.

  2. Rex Mays says

    David, I have a large, 25 year old umbrella tree in my yard in coastal Southern California. This year is the only year that it has bloomed with the red branches and seed pods at the top. Is this unusual or is this common for a tree this old?

  3. Jeannie Campbell says

    My husband and I bought an umbrella tree from… Can you believe… Walmart? We brought it home in the back of our VW Beatle back in 1980!!

    This tree was purchased shortly after we got married and while we live in Wisconsin, it had to be an indoor tree in the fall/winter.

    This tree. Was viewed as a symbol of our marriage.

    While we had a high ceiling, we had to cut it back about 4 times

    Then a horrible situation occurred and I didn’t take proper care of our tree.

    It became very gangly with few leaves that managed to stay on the branches.

    I did a horrible thing and threw it out.

    My husband was crushed and I too regretted that moment of intolerance.

    I desperately want to get a new umbrella tree as a gift for my husband.

    We have survived the loss of our son, and everything has great meaning in our lives. In a world of grief and pain, we must start our lives over. How much it would mean to start our new journey with another umbrella tree!! Our symbol of love!!

    Is there someone who could help me to gift my husband with this special tree???

    I would be eternally grateful

  4. Sahil Talwar says

    Hi David, we got umbrella tree cut and stump is still in there next to our wall. I have been applying Glyophosate 360 from last 3 weeks every week (undiluted). Now the stump is secreting some type of glue from edges and its turned pale yellow. Is it a indication of stump is getting weak and will dye?

  5. Julianne Crosby says

    David do you know if umbrella trees can be removed without Council approval in the North Sydney NSW area. Many thanks Julianne

    • David Taylor says

      Hi Julianne. While in Brisbane this species can be removed without a permit, in your local government area you will need a permit if it is over 10m tall or has a circumference of over 1500mm at 1000mm height, or over 5m if you are on a heritage rim. Let me know if you’d like me to recommend a good arborist in your area.

      • Eleanor QUILL says

        Hi David. I have what I think is like a miniature umbrella tree. I am Brisbane south. It has small clumps of leaves and does not produce those red flowers and is more like a bushy plant. It seems to clump its self together rather than grow outward like the big umbrella trees. I prune the sides and the tops every few months. It would be about 1.5 m across and 2m high. I have propagated cuttings and was going to plant as a hedge as from the one I have been loving for two years is a great privacy barrier and a fast grower. When we moved into the house it was planted right beside the verandah in a garden and is at least 5 years old and does not appear to have the same root structure that the big one does. Are you aware of this plant or is it entirely different species to the big umbrella tree?

  6. Kerry says

    Hi David. Can you tell me if there are any legal requirements in removing the umbrella tree from my back yard? Thank you.

    • David Taylor says

      In Queensland umbrella trees are declared environmental weeds so locally there are no legal issues to prevent it being removed.

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