There are always a few plants that get placed in my garden that I wish I hadn’t purchased. Maybe I knew they would be too cold sensitive but tried anyway. Maybe I knew they would grow too quickly for a selected spot in the garden. Perhaps some were just ugly and grew nothing like I imagined they would. However, very seldomly have I actually despised a plant in my garden. Pisonia umbellifera ‘Variegata’ has become just that. Sadly, it has become an unwanted nuisance in my garden and I am counting down the days to when I chop it down and haul it off to the dump. I do understand that “despise” is a strong word. I mean how could a popularly cultivated tree with beautifully variegated leaves become such a nuisance? Let me explain why I am no longer a fan of the tree shown below.
The first thing that jumps out at you with the evergreen Pisonia umbellifera ‘Variegata’ are those attractive variegated leaves with mottled shades of white, yellow and green. To top it off, new leaves open with a pinkish hue to them. With beautiful foliage like shown below, Pisonia umbellifera ‘Variegata’ has become a sought after ornamental tree for frost-free gardens.
So what is the issue then? Well I forgot to mention the common name of this tree. It has the name Bird Catcher Tree or Umbrella Catchbirdtree. There is a reason for this. Starting in early summer the tree starts to go into bloom here in Southern California. The nondescript flowers that emerge appear harmless enough. But that is their plan. The “don’t let people take notice until it is too late” plan.
Once pollinated, the flowers begin to develop into fruit. Again, nothing really standing out yet to alert you to the nuisance the tree would become shortly.
Give the fruit a little more time to develop and the trouble begins. See the glossy black banding on the fruit below?
That is the sticky substance that the fruit of Pisonia umbellifera ‘Variegata’ exudes. The sticky substance will grasp onto anything it touches and proves very difficult to remove.
Here is Pisonia umbellifera ‘Variegata’ showing all three phases shown above. Flower at the bottom right, developing fruit to the left, and the sticky, fully developed fruit to the top right and bottom left.
In the tropics, Pisonia umbellifera can grow into a large tree. Here in my mediterranean climate garden it has taken almost 10 years to reach the size shown in the first picture of this post. At 15 feet tall, that tree in my garden can become covered with sticky fruit by late summer. Rarely producing fruits in pots, it took about 6 years for my small, 3-gallon plant to turn into a fruiting tree. Just within the last two years it has begun to flower and fruit all through summer and into fall.
Pisonia umbellifera ‘Variegata’ loves water and fertilizer and I give it plenty of both. However, nothing out of the norm from what I give all the tropical plants in my garden. Unfortunately, it has responded to the love by rewarding me with a nuisance I can no longer handle. Those sticky fruits end up in my kids’ hair (which is a real nightmare to get out and even involves cutting it out in severe cases), on my dogs’ fur, and both eventually track the fruits into the house because the fruit falls to the garden floor looking for paws and shoes to stick to. I don’t know how many times I have had a momentary lapse in awareness while walking by or weeding too close to my Umbrella Catchbirdtree only to bump into it and have those damn fruits stick to me or get into my hair. Look how easy it is to just get one fruit to stick to my finger. Now imagine bumping into an entire clump of them.
The threat to garden fauna can be more damaging. The Umbrella Catchbirdtree has evolved a great way to disperse its seeds. Anytime a large bird flies into the tree it is guaranteed to get a few of the fruits stuck to it. Eventually the feather or fruit will fall off the bird allowing the tree to disperse its seeds much farther away than trusting the wind. Perhaps that is why Pisonia umbellifera can be found growing throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific.
If it were just large birds that the fruit sticks to it wouldn’t be much of an issue. However, it is indiscriminate on what it will stick to and anything small will find it impossible to pull away. Flies, bees and other insects can always be found dead on my fruiting tree.
Even worse, the “Catchbirdtree” can live up to its name. Here is a poor little hummingbird that flew too close, got entangled and couldn’t pull itself free before it died. You can also see more bees and flies dead in this one clump.
If you want to witness how sticky the fruit really is you can watch this YouTube video I made. It shows how fast you can get into trouble with this plant’s fruit.
So there you have it. Now you now why I suggest that people not plant Pisonia umbellifera ‘Variegata’ in their garden. Don’t let the beautiful leaves fool you like they did me. Once established and happy, you too will come to despise this plant. I guess if I didn’t have kids and dogs I might be more upbeat on this plant. I would just plant it far away from foot traffic. But I do have kids and dogs, so the axe is coming…