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What’s Blooming in Paradise: Varnish leaf resembles hydrangea

By Staff | Feb 10, 2016

The varnish leaf can be grown as a dense branched shrub, or small tree. PHOTO BY ANITA FORCE MARSHALL

Plant Subject: Varnish Leaf (Dodonaea viscosa)

First impression: Sea foam green, stiff heart shaped petals with pink to red tinting. These petals are fused forming a pouch in the middle. For me, they are breathtaking, being grouped in a cluster to form the appearance of my beloved hydrangea. Older petals have a varnished look as they have turned a brown paper bag color. Shiny, slender green elliptical leaves emerge everywhere as an adornment to the gorgeous blossoms. Wow, pom-poms of petals that any hydrangea lover would cheer about, blooming now at the Botanical Gardens of the Sanibel Moorings.

Upon further investigation: Varnish leaf is very versatile, and can be grown as a densely branched shrub or small tree. Its one of those in-betweeners, you decide the height by pruning. Left on its own, the mature height is around 10-15 feet tall. Our stars habit is a wide bushy shrub. I routinely shape and form its body because this plant is a fast grower and can get leggy.

It is evergreen, unless it is hit by a really cold spell, then its leaves drop. Its leaves will return when the temperatures rise. You will notice a resin on its leaves that helps it retain moisture, making it very drought tolerant. This sticky, glossy appearance is how it received such a peculiar name – varnish leaf.

We gardeners in paradise miss our picturesque hydrangeas. Fortunately, we have this wonderful native plant that fits the look-a-like criteria. Wisps of heart shaped (without the points) petals emerge yellow/green in oodles massing to a large blossom. Each flower is formed dimensional by three petals fused together. The center of the flower is hollow like a small pouch. As the flowers mature fruits form inside the pouch turning colors of pink and red. This stage of fruiting is when wildlife especially birds adore this plant. I have experienced several breathtaking moments when crimson cardinals wander up and down this already striking plant.

All this dimensional kaleidoscopic display is going on at the same time, which makes flowering time a real show stopper. Varnish leaf will grow on a wide variety of soils and sand. Once you see the abundant blossoms you will love this plant. I use them for cut flowers; they are gorgeous in every color stage. Its native status puts it in the easy care and lack of pests/disease category. Varnish leaf from days gone has been under used in our tropical landscape. I encourage you to try one, once you see it flower, don’t forget to thank me!


Oodles of blooms

Does well in sandy soil

Likes full sun

Birds love the fruit

Salt tolerance

Great for a cottage garden look

Neighbors will wonder how you can grow Hydrangeas



Brittle limbs

Fast grower

Seed pods can be messy

May have to thank Anita

Cold sensitive.

Conclusion: Are you missin’ your hydrangeas? Come see our version, minus the snow, in our tropical garden in paradise. Don’t wanna miss this bloomer!