The hallmark of these fast-growing plants is their exotic leaves, which are divided into leaflets that spread out like the fingers of a hand. In most of the South, they are popular houseplants. They prefer bright light but need protection from direct sun, which may burn leaves. Give good drainage; let the soil go fairly dry between soakings. Feed once a month with a general-purpose liquid houseplant fertilizer; stop feeding and reduce watering in fall and winter. Watch for mealybugs, red spider mites, aphids, and scale; apply insecticidal soap or horticultural oil to control these pests. Dust-free, well-humidified plants suffer the fewest problems, so frequent misting is a good idea.
Outdoors, plant scheffleras in fertile, well-drained soil, either in the ground or in large pots. In central and south Florida, they grow into small trees. Bold texture makes them useful accents for patios and Florida rooms. Summer flowers (showy in some species) are followed by tiny dark fruit; houseplants are unlikely to bloom.
S. actinophylla. QUEENS-LAND UMBRELLA TREE, OCTOPUS TREE, SCHEFFLERA. Zone TS; USDA 10-11. Native to Australia. Fast growth to 2040 ft. tall and eventually as wide. The umbrella of the common name comes from the foliage form: The long-stalked, glossy-green leaves are divided into 7 to 16 large (1-ft.-long) leaflets that radiate outward like ribs of an umbrella. Foliage grows in tiers. Octopus refers to showy flower heads: Narrow, raylike structures to 3 ft. long, set all along their length with little blossoms, radiate from a central point. Flowers age from greenish yellow to pink to dark red. Good for tropical effects, silhouette, contrast with fern-type foliage plants. Cut out tips occasionally to keep plant from becoming leggy. Cut back overgrown plants nearly to ground level; they will grow back with a better form.
S. arboricola. DWARF SCHEFFLERA. Native to Taiwan. To 20 ft. tall with equal or greater spread, but easily kept smaller with pruning. The dark green leaves are much smaller than those of S. actinophylla, with 3-in. leaflets that broaden toward rounded tips. If plants are set into the ground with stems at an angle, they'll continue to grow at that anglewhich can give attractive multistemmed effects. Yellowish flowers are clustered in flattened, foot-wide spheres; they turn bronze with age. Over all, this species produces a denser, darker, less treelike effect than S. actinophylla. Less prone to pests than S. actinophyllaa far better houseplant. Selections with gold-variegated leaves are popular. Look for 'Gold Capella', 'Trinette' ('Trinetta'), and 'Variegata'. Low light causes variegation to fade.
S. delavayi. Zones LS, CS, TS; USDA 8-11. Native to southeastern China and Vietnam. Hardiest by far of the species listed here, surviving temperatures as low as 8F without protection. Grows slowly to 615 ft. tall and about half as wide. Large leaves (to 3 ft. across) are divided into 57 leaflets; dark green above and felted creamy gray beneath. Produces 3-ft.-long sprays of tiny white in fall.
S. elegantissima. FALSE ARALIA. Native to New Caledonia. Airy and elegant. As a juvenile, it is a houseplant; when mature, it's a garden plant to 25 ft. tall and wide. Leaves are divided like fans into leaflets with notched edges. Young plants are unbranched, with narrow (1-in.), lacy-looking leaflets to 9 in. long; foliage is shiny dark green above, reddish beneath. The plant branches as it matures, and leaflets grow slightly longer, broaden to 3 in., and become less glossy. Greenish yellow flowers in clusters to 1 ft. long. Be warned that false aralia bears a striking resemblance to marijuana, so be prepared to explain its presence in your garden to local authorities and nosy neighbors.
S. pueckleri. Native to southern Asia. Resembles S. actinophylla but is a denser plant that branches from the base. May be trained to single trunk. Leaves to nearly 2 ft. wide are divided into seven to nine stalked, glossy, bright green leaflets, each to 7 in. long, 212 in. wide. Flowers are greenish, borne on shorter, fewer rays than those of S. actinophylla.