- DIVISION: Tracheobionta
- CLASS: L Magnoliopsida
- ORDER: Apiales
- FAMILY: Araliaceae
- GENUS: Schefflera
- SPECIES: actinophylla
A native of Australia and Papua New Guinea rainforests and humid coastal areas, the Queensland umbrella tree—also known as the octopus tree—is most familiar to Americans as a low-maintenance, cultivated ornamental houseplant. With its beautiful, glossy green foliage and distinctive leaf shape, it is frequently seen in office buildings and shopping malls, growing to a height of 6 to 15 feet. However, in its original habitat in wetlands or near the water, this tree grows up to 50 feet tall and would never fit in a pot.
This tree gets its name from the shape of its leaf, with 5 to 10 oval-shaped leaflets that can be up to 12 inches (30.5 centimeters) long. Each leaf’s leaflets radiate outward like fingers, in the shape of an umbrella. When the tree flowers, it produces an inflorescence of small red flowers in umbrella-shaped clusters, which radiate from up to 2-foot (60-centimeter) stalks, resembling the tentacles of an octopus. The tree later produces a dark red fruit that is .1 to .2 inches (3 to 5 centimeters) long, with a single oval-shaped, brown seed.
In its native habitats, the tree’s numerous seeds are dispersed by birds. They can germinate on the ground, in wetlands, or even in crevices of tree branches or crowns of palms, where the plant can grow as an epiphyte until its roots reach the ground.
Queensland umbrella trees are often multi-trunked, with smooth green or gray bark. They produce evergreen foliage and grow to form a rounded shape with a low canopy. This tree can grow up to 3 feet (1 meter) a year, eventually reaching a height of 30 to 50 feet (9 to 15 meters) and a canopy width of 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters).
The Queensland umbrella tree was first described by botanists in the 1840s, and was introduced as an ornamental plant around 1900. It grows well as a houseplant, as long as it gets plenty of sunlight, regular watering, and protection from hot afternoon sun. It also grows well outdoors in USDA Zones 10 through 12, and can withstand a temperature drop to as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 degrees Celsius).
The Queensland umbrella tree is not only stable, it is thriving. This tree is extremely hardy and fast growing, and it coexists well with other plants in its native ecosystem. Unfortunately, when it has been introduced to non-native areas in warm, humid climates—including Florida, Hawaii, and Bermuda—the Queensland umbrella tree has sometimes become an invasive species, choking out local native plants.
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You can see Queensland umbrella trees at the San Diego Zoo in a variety of locations.