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Shrub or small tree to 6 m. Bark smooth and brown with prominent leaf scars. Leaves evergreen, digitate, clustered towards the ends of the branches; petiole stout, 5–15 cm long; leaflets three to five, 5–10 × 2–4 cm, obovate to cuneate, green, though paler below, thick and leathery, margins crenate to serrate, apex obtuse or acute; leaflets sessile or with a short petiolule (terminal leaflet). Juvenile leaves larger than those of the adult. Dioecious. Inflorescences terminal and compound, without a distinct primary axis, umbellate. Staminate inflorescence with four to eight primary branches, 4–5 cm long, with flowers in racemes. Pistillate inflorescence with six to eight primary branches, to 10 cm long, each with up to six umbels with three to five flowers. Flowers small, inconspicuous. Fruit ribbed, globose, with a disc-like apex, surmounted by five stigmatic branches, 0.5 × 0.7 cm. Flowering December to February (New Zealand). Allan 1961, Salmon 1996. Distribution NEW ZEALAND: North Is. (from Three Kings Is. to Poverty Bay). Habitat Coastal forest and scrub. USDA Hardiness Zone 9. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration Ellison 1999. Cross-reference K59.
Pseudopanax lessonii is more likely to form a shrub than a tree, and will only be suitable for the mildest extremities of our area. In New Zealand it tolerates exposure and wind but not hard, prolonged frosts (Metcalf 2000). It can be used as a good tub or conservatory plant, however, and there are several cultivars with coloured foliage. Of these, ‘Gold Splash’ is an exceptionally fine variegated plant. ‘Nigra’ and ‘Purpureus’ are purple-pigmented clones, while ‘Black Ruby’ is particularly richly coloured. The boundaries of P. lessonii in horticulture are blurred by the existence of hybrids with other species, some of which are sometimes assigned to P. lessonii, or treated as unattributed cultivars. They are often very attractive shrubs for the milder garden, where temperatures seldom drop below –5 ºC. Among those with palmate leaves is Pseudopanax (Adiantifolius Group) ‘Cyril Watson’, with handsome glossy dark green, five-lobed leaves. More obviously intermediate between the palmate-leaved shrubs and the dimorphic trees with long juvenile leaves are a group of hybrids that include ‘Trident’ with narrowly three-pointed leaves, and ‘Sabre’ with lanceolate leaves. These appear to have arisen in New Zealand and to have been distributed from there by the horticultural trade.
Also shrubby, occasionally forming a slow-growing small tree, with palmate leaves, is P. discolor. Its bronzed foliage is attractive but it is probably not very hardy (Huxley et al. 1992). A rich dark purple-leaved clone called ‘Rangatira’, probably a form of P. discolor, may appear in catalogues attributed to P. lessonii or as a floating cultivar.