I recently wrote a blog called 5 Plants with Weird Foliage and promised more. Here’s a second blog on the subject featuring four other plants with really strange leaves.
Corkscrew Albuca (Albuca spiralis ‘Frizzle Sizzle’)
Nobody knows why corkscrew albuca leaves curl up like corkscrews, but that’s what they do, both in the wild (South Africa) and in our homes. Perhaps curled leaves offer some protection against the very intense sun of its native land? But that’s just my guess. I’ve never heard of any study on the subject.
From Collector’s Object to (Almost) Everyday Annual
This plant was once a rare collector’s item, but has, over the last few years, become somewhat of a garden center star, showing up by the hundreds in nurseries and selling like hot cakes. You’ll mostly see it offered as an annual in the spring: a single plant in a small pot. However, it’s much more expensive than the average annual: you’re not likely to be willing to fork out the money to do mass plantings of it like you might a petunia! It’s best to think of it as a “horticultural curiosity” and to use it as such, giving it a starring role in a container rather than losing it from sight in a crowded flower bed.
I recommend using corkscrew albuca as a houseplant. You might want to put it outside for the summer, of course, but do bring it back indoors in the fall. Of course, readers from milder climates than mine (zones 8 to 11) can also experiment with it as a permanent outdoor plant. I’ve heard that it’s not hard to grow outdoors, especially if you can give it a Mediterranean climate: hot, dry summers and cool, rainier winters.
I don’t suspect this plant will remain popular very long, though. It’s definitely more a curiosity than truly pretty. Most people try it once, enjoy it, then go on to other things. It’s the kind of plant only plant collectors really love.
Albuca spiralis ’Frizzle Sizzle is a small succulent plant, about 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 cm) tall and 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm), from the Asparagaceae family. It sprouts from an underground bulb (although, if you want to, you could grow the bulb nearly completely exposed, with only its base and roots buried). It looks much a round greenish onion. (But don’t eat it: it’s poisonous.)
The spiral leaves are medium green, sometimes a little bluish. The drier the conditions are, the more the leaves curl, so don’t overwater. Ditto for fertilization. Rich soil means fewer swirls!
Flowers are borne on short, upright stalks 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) tall;, with 10 to 20 flowers per stem. The flowers are rather modest in color: green and yellowish. They remind me of dangling trumpet daffodils. There are six tepals, three spreading outwards and three forming a trumpetlike tube. They’re pleasantly scented, but you have to stick your nose into the flower to really notice.
This cultivar, ‘Frizzle Sizzle’, is a selection of the species made by Dutch nurseryman Gerardus Adrianus Maria Zwidgerst. While it’s said to be curlier than the species (a questionable claim, in my view), it’s true value is that ‘Frizzle Sizzle’ is less linked to a winter-growing season than the species. I’ve tried a few albucas in the past and they were all winter-growing plants. Unfortunately, the very short winter days and resulting low light in my climate didn’t suit them. They tended to remain spindly and were not easy to bloom.
The ‘Frizzle Sizzle’ plant you buy, though, is already primed for spring through summer growth and will likely bloom sporadically throughout the summer. Theoretically, it would then go into dormancy in the fall, losing all its leaves, and stay dormant through the winter before sprouting again in spring for another cycle. And you can grow it like that: you just have to withhold water from fall until you see new growth in spring. However, under most home conditions, I’ve found it will continue to grow all winter as long as you water it.
How to Grow It
Place your corkscrew albuca in a sunny location and water only when the soil is dry. Remember it’s a succulent and doesn’t want to be left soaking. Fertilize only lightly and even then, only while it’s growing. There is no need provide increased air humidity for this plant.
Regular indoor temperatures are fine and you can store it cool for the winter if you allow it to go dormant. It’s said to tolerate a bit of frost, but I wouldn’t risk it if I were you. Any well-drained potting soil will do when the time comes to repot it.
There is one obvious reason why this particular cultivar is widely available: it’s very prolific. It produces multiple offsets you can divide and pot up. They’ll bloom once the bulb is full size, often after only one year.
Titan Arum or Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum)
This plant of the Araceae family is best known for having the largest unbranched inflorescence in the world, sometimes reaching over 10 feet (3.5 m) in height. Whenever it blossoms in a botanical garden, its flowering becomes a huge media event and people come in huge numbers, often lining up for hours to see and smell it (because the inflorescence gives off a nauseating odor, whence the name corpse flower). The flowering lasts only about two or three days, though, so when you hear one is blooming in your area, get over there fast!
The shape of the giant “flower” is also quite suggestive, as the botanical name Amorphophallus titanum means “giant deformed penis.” This “penis” refers to the columnar spadix in the center made up of thousands of tiny flowers. It is surrounded by a huge spathe (bract), green on the outside and a lugubrious deep purple on the inside. Definitely more curious than beautiful.
Leaf as Weird as the Bloom
In the average article about this plant, the story ends there. No one ever seems to mention that the leaf is just as weird and spectacular as the flower … but that’s the point of this particular article.
A full-size leaf can reach 23 feet (7 m) in height and 15 feet (5 m) in diameter. Plus the leaf is around for a much longer time: months every year rather than just a few days. In the wild, it goes dormant annually for four to six months, but potted specimens often hold onto their leaf almost all year, until another leaf is ready to grow.
The leaf, in fact, looks more like an entire tree than a leaf. Its thick purple-mottled green petiole, up to a 8 inches (20 cm) in diameter, grows straight upward, like a trunk, and it’s topped with what appear to be leafy branches. However, all the greenery comes from just one single leaf so divided into hundreds of leaflets it looks like a tree top. Distinctly weird, for sure, but also beautiful. Yes, sometimes the two do go together!
You won’t see both flower and leaf on the same plant, at least, not at once. The plant retreats into dormancy in its huge underground tuber and blooms while it is leafless.
The tuber is also a record breaker. It increases in size year after year and can reach the incredible weight of 340 lb (154 kg)! It takes a huge pot (I hear Kew Gardens uses 1000 liter containers) to hold it! After the plant blooms, the tuber will shrink back considerably and the next leaf will also lose its titanic size, reaching no higher than the height of the average man. Then both the leaf and the tuber grow in size year after year, storing energy for the upcoming flowering. It usually blooms every 7 to 10 years, depending on growing conditions, then the plant shrinks in size again … and the cycle starts anew.
Not Your Average Houseplant
Obviously, this plant is not a good choice for the average home or garden, at least not unless you live in a large tropical greenhouse or a torrid and humid jungle. While it only needs moderate lighting (it’s a woodland plant in the wild), it’s need for extremely high humidity (80% and above) and warm temperatures (21 to 25 ° C during the day and never less than 19 ° C even at night, at least during the growing season) make it nearly impossible to grow well … and there is also the question of space. Indoors, you’d need a three-story atrium to shelter it. That’s why this plant is usually only grown in botanical gardens.
Other Amorphophallus Species
There are, however, smaller Amorphophallus species that would be more interesting for the average gardener, such as devil’s tongue, also called snake plant and voodoo lily, A. konjac (A. rivieri), which can be easily grown in pots either as a houseplant or a tender bulb. It can even grow outdoors year-round in mild enough climates (USDA zone 6/AgCan zone 7 and warmer). The single leaf still reaches a very impressive size: 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 1.8 m) in height! Although this species has the capacity to bloom annually, it will only do so under ideal growing conditions. My plant succeeds no better than A. titanum does in most botanical gardens: it’s only bloomed twice in nearly 20 years … fortunately while it was outdoors for the summer, as the odor would be intolerable indoors. The patent leather purple inflorescence is still huge (and stinky), much like that of A. titanum in shape, although not nearly as large.
Note that the tuber of any amorphophallus must be well covered in soil, because the roots emerge from the top of the tuber, not from the bottom.
Finally, all amorphophallus species are toxic to humans, dogs and cats, although the cooked tuber of many species is edible.
Lettuce Leaf Begonia (Begonia x erythrophylla ’Bunchii’)
Let’s move on to a more conveniently sized plant, a houseplant that any gardener could grow on a windowsill, but with leaves that are still in the “very weird” category: the so-called lettuce leaf begonia, Begonia x erythrophylla ‘Bunchii’.
This plant originally showed up as a mutation of the popular water-lily begonia (B. x erythrophylla) in 1914 and was named for its discoverer, Lloyd Bunch. Instead of having the smooth leaves typical of the species, the leaf margins of ‘Bunchii’ are strongly ruffled and curled, a bit like curly leaf lettuce as the common name suggests. In addition, the leaves are attractively colored: shiny dark bronzy green above and wine red below. Also, the plant blooms readily in winter (it’s a short-day plant), producing clouds of small pale pink flowers.
This is a true hand-me-down houseplant, grown for generations all over the world, but is rarely offered commercially … probably because it is no longer as fashionable as it was 100 years ago!
The lettuce leaf begonia is easy to grow. It forms creeping aboveground rhizomes that slowly cover the surface of the pot and eventually dangle downwards as the plant matures, making it popular for hanging baskets. It readily tolerates average household conditions, including medium light and typical indoor temperatures. It will even put up with fairly dry air! A little fertilizer from time to time and sometimes a bit of a prune to keep it in check can be useful. This plant is easy to propagate through rhizome cuttings or even leaf or leaf section cuttings.
That said, ‘Bunchii’ is not the curliest of the begonias. I feel that title belongs to B. ‘Crestabruchii’, a similar but larger plant with bigger, hairier leaves that are extremely ruffled at the edge. On the other hand, I find ‘Crestabruchii’ more difficult to grow well, notably because it tends to go dormant in the fall and can be slow to awaken again in the spring. So, maybe the leaf of ‘Crestabruchii’ is the weirder of the two, but ‘Bruchii’ is much easier to grow.
Warty Echeveria (Echeveria gibbiflora carunculata)
Echeveria is a genus of succulent plants native to the arid regions of Central America and northern South America, named for the Mexican botanical artist Atanasio Echeverría. A member of the Crassulaceae family, it’s closely related to the genus Sedum. Typically, echeverias are short, stocky plants forming a dense rosette of thick leaves, often of a glaucous blue color or heavily covered with white hairs. In summer, they produce branching stalks bearing pink, red or orange bell-shaped flowers, often with yellow tips.
Echeverias look very similar to the well-known hen and chicks or houseleek (Sempervivum spp.) so often grown outdoors in rock gardens in cooler climates and indeed, they are essentially the frost-tender counterparts of the hardy European genus.
Weird Leaf Growths
Warty echeverias are variants or hybrids of E. gibbiflora, one of the largest echeverias. It normally bears smooth, thick, spoon-shaped leaves of a glaucous blue-green color highlighted in pink when the plant is grown in full sun. A variant with warty growths on the leaf top, E. gibbiflora carunculata, was brought into culture from Mexico and is the parent behind all the warty echeverias. The epithet carunculata means “bearing caruncles,” lumpy, bumpy irregular growths, much like the wattle (caruncule) of a turkey.
It’s not clear whether this form is really a subspecies found in the wild and therefore meriting the botanical name E. gibbiflora carunculata or whether it’s a cultivated variety, in which case E. gibbiflora ‘Carunculata’ would be more appropriate.
Whatever the plants’ origin, their leaves are truly weird, as if they were covered by lumps of molten lava. There are no two leaves alike and many of the cultivars have wavy or rolled leaves as well. These are large plants, with rosettes up to 12 inches (30 cm) in diameter. The summer flowers are usually thick red urns and of clearly secondary interest to the curious foliage.
With time, the lower leaves drop off, revealing a thick “trunk” … but most people judge this appearance unsightly and repot the plant occasionally, chopping a part of the bottom of the root ball off so it can be placed deeper in the pot. They then bury the bare part of the stem which soon roots into the surrounding soil. Or they simply cut the head off the plant and use it as a cutting. The “stump” left behind will then produce plantlets that you can remove and root.
Warty echeverias are quite readily found in garden centers, but usually bear no proper label, making exact identification almost impossible, as there are now many hybrids, including ‘Etna’ (probably the most common), ‘Cameo’, ‘Dick Wright’, ‘Mauna Loa’ and ‘Barbillion’ as well as the original E. gibbiflora carunculata. They can be very hard to tell apart, given the variability of their leaves.
Warty echeverias need full sun to do their best or if not, at least several hours of direct sun each day. Too much shade will cause the plants to decline, producing smaller and smaller leaves until they eventually die. In winter, when days are short and the sun is weak, you might want to move them to a spot under a bright fluorescent or LED light or at least keep them cool and very dry, nearly dormant, to stop any weak growth at that season.
Water relatively abundantly during the growing season, from spring until early fall. This is also the time of year to fertilize (any fertilizer would be suitable) at no more than 1/8th of the regularly recommended rate. In fall and especially the winter, try reduce watering to a minimum, only moistening the growing mix when the soil is thoroughly dry.
Regular home temperatures are just fine spring through fall—warty echeverias tolerate even summer heat very well—but, again, unless you can provide plenty of light at that season, they’ll do best with a cool, dry winter. In theory, they can tolerate a touch of frost, but it’s best to avoid temperatures that cool.
The major concern of warty echeverias is high humidity: it can lead to rot. They prefer a well-ventilated spot. It’s especially important to avoid letting water form on the foliage in winter, as it tends to accumulate there and the rot it causes can be fatal. Always use a potting mix that drains well.
Warty echeverias are readily propagated by stem cuttings and offsets. They’re said to grow from leaf cuttings, too, but I’ve had no luck with that.
There you go! Four plants with remarkable and even weird leaves. Keeping visiting the blog even for more plants with weird foliage over the coming weeks and months.