Scheffleras are largely tropical species, found in warm and humid habitats around the world. Several species – including the umbrella tree (Schefflera actinophylla) and the dwarf umbrella tree (Schefflera arboricola) – are widely planted as ornamentals or as indoor houseplants. They are especially prized for their hardy nature and the tropical flavor they can provide your yard or home.
Classification and Composition of the Group
The genus Schefflera, as presently construed, contains about 600 different species of trees, vines and large shrubs. As you may expect for such a large collection of species, botanists and taxonomists disagree about the exact composition of the group, and changes have been (and will surely continue to be) common.
It appears that current composition of the group is paraphyletic, meaning that it is comprised of several different independent lineages. This will likely lead scientists to split the group into several different genera at some point in the future. These independent lineages appear to be more-or-less geographically clumped into four different groups, centered in Melanesia, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Africa (including Madagascar), respectively.
Description and Care
Most of the species placed in the genus have palmately-compound (hand-like), evergreen leaves, primarily located at the apex of the branches. It is difficult to make broad generalizations about the various features of such a varied group, but the most popular commercial species exhibit a tree- or shrub-like growth habit.
Scheffleras tend to want warm, humid conditions, with ample soil moisture. Nevertheless, few Scheffeleras can tolerate having wet root zones for extended periods of time, so it is wise to let the soil dry out between waterings. Most species in the genus prefer partial shade; they will wither in exceptionally dim light and they are susceptible to burning in bright sunlight.
Unfortunately, despite making wonderful houseplants or ornamental trees, most Scheffleras contain calcium oxalate crystals in their tissues. These highly irritating crystals are toxic to dogs and cats, who may experience extreme irritation and burning in the mouth, esophagus and tongue, after eating the leaves, stems or flowers.
Important Species in the Genus Schefflera
Schefflera is a wide-ranging and species-rich genus, but only a few species are commonly seen in the marketplace.
Umbrella Tree (Schefflera actinophylla)
Also known as the Queensland umbrella tree or the octopus tree, the umbrella tree hails from the tropical portions of northern Australia, New Guinea and the island of Java. It is a medium-sized tree, growing up to 50 feet in height. It often grows as a multi-trunked tree, and occasionally starts life as an epiphyte, nourishing itself as a parasite, located high above the canopy floor. Over time, the tree will send down aerial roots, which eventually reach the ground, allowing the plant to become self-sufficient.
The umbrella tree is perhaps most notable for its spike-like protrusions (called racemes) that bear its flowers. Appearing in the early summer, the racemes may persist for several months before withering away. Particularly large racemes may contain 1,000 red flowers or more.
Dwarf Umbrella Tree (Schefflera arboricola)
The dwarf umbrella tree is named for its appearance, which resembles that of a small Australian umbrella tree. Native to Taiwan and south China, the species is grown all over the world as both a houseplant and a landscape tree. Although these trees can grow up to 30 feet in height, most indoor-maintained specimens only reach 8 or 9 feet in height.
Dwarf umbrella trees are extremely popular houseplants, if for no other reason than their incredibly hardy nature. They tolerate poor conditions and neglect in stride, and they often live for many years after becoming established. These traits also make dwarf umbrella trees very popular among bonsai enthusiasts.
Seven-Finger Tree (Schefflera digitata)
The seven-finger tree is a distinct-looking Schefflera, native to New Zealand – in fact, it is the only Schefflera native to the country. Preferring damp, cool riparian habitats, the seven-finger tree grows to about 30 feet in height. Unlike most other Scheffleras, the seven-finger tree has leaves with serrated margins.
Seven-finger trees have been important to the lives of New Zealand’s native peoples throughout history. In addition to the milky sap, which is used in a variety of medicinal applications, the wood was a popular choice for starting friction fires.
Like many other plant and tree species hailing from underdeveloped, tropical regions, many Scheffleras are struggling to cope with habitat loss. Several of the species are listed as threatened or endangered, and are unlikely to survive without increased protection, and possibly cultivation programs.
Some of the most imperiled species include the Cameroon Schefflera (Schefflera hierniana), which hails from the tropical regions of equatorial Africa; and two Indonesian species: the Javanese Schefflera (Schefflera fastigiata), from Java, and the many-leaved Schefflera (Schefflera multifoliolata), of Sumatra.