Variegated sweetheart vine (Ceropegia woodii ‘Variegata’). Photo: worldofsucculents.com
One of my favorite Valentine’s plant is the variegated sweetheart vine (Ceropegia woodii ‘Variegata’). It’s a succulent with delightful pairs of plump little heart-shaped leaves, purplish underneath, green and highly marbled with silver above, while the leaf edges are variegated creamy white and pink. I picked mine up years ago in local garden center and have been sharing cuttings ever since.
And the heart-shaped leaves make it a perfect Valentine’s Day gift!
The variegated sweetheart vine produces long, thin, dangling stems that will, if you grow the plant in a hanging basket, eventually reach the floor. However, I find this plant is much more attractive if you regularly cut back the longest stems, as that stimulates greater branching and denser growth, giving you a greater concentration of color nearer to the pot. It will also make a great ground cover plant, one you could grow as a living carpet in the pot of larger, upright succulent with similar needs, or in a dish garden. (No, it will not be happy in a terrarium other than in the short term: succulents never are.)
The variegated also produces a tuber at its base and also smaller ones along its stem. They look like dangling mini-potatoes! They’re actually edible and other species of Ceropegia with larger tubers are harvested from the wild for human consumption (C. bulbosa, notably), although mostly as a famine food. (May I suggest cooking before eating any to remove any bitterness). But sweetheart vine tubers are too small to be of much sustenance.
It also blooms and quite prolifically at that, mostly in summer and fall. The flowers are small and curious, said to look like a lantern, with a bulbous base and tube in pinkish purple and deep purple, nearly black, petals joined at the tip. They’re impressive when studied through a magnifying glass, but otherwise too small and too insipidly colored to really stand out.
What’s in a Name?
This plant has more than its usual share of common names, most having to do with its heart-shaped leaves: not just sweetheart vine, but also chain of hearts, string of hearts, collar of hearts and hearts-on-a-string. It’s also called rosary vine for the little round brownish tubers found here and there along its stem.
The botanical name Ceropegia was chosen by Carl Linnaeus and means “fountain of wax” (from the Greek kērós meaning wax and pēgḗ meaning fountain), which he felt described the flowers. (You had to have been there!) The epithet woodii honors the plant’s discoverer, John Medley Wood (1827–1915), curator of the Durban Botanic Gardens, who found it hanging from rocks on Groenberg Mountain in Natal, South Africa, at an altitude of 1800 feet (5,500 m). It also grows in Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Zimbabwe.
Its correct botanical name is now considered to be C. linearis woodii, meaning it is a subspecies of the string-of-needles plant (C. linearis), with, as you certainly guessed, as narrow, pointed leaves very unlike the heart-shaped ones of sweetheart vine.
The genus Ceropegia of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae) contains some 180 species of shrubs, herbaceous perennials and climbers, often with a tuber or rhizomes, most native to Africa, but some also to Asia and Australia.
Simple to Grow
The variegated sweetheart vine is a tough, no-nonsense plant that doesn’t need much babying. Unlike most succulents, that really need intense light if not full sun, sweetheart vine seems perfectly at home in both in sun and medium light. It won’t tolerate long periods soaking in water, but is otherwise very tolerant of negligent watering, as long as you let the growing mix dry out between waterings. As long as it’s grown in a pot with drainage holes using a well-drained potting mix (regular potting mix, cactus mix, etc.), it will probably do fine. You could literally not water it for 6 months and it would likely survive.
It’s definitely a tropical plant, though, and prefers temperatures above 50˚F (10˚C) at all times. Therefore, other than for a summer visit outdoors, it can be grown outside permanently only in the very mildest climates (USDA hardiness zones 10–12).
It is highly tolerant of extreme heat and not bothered by dry air, so you can leave to bake in front of a hot sunny window if you so desire.
You can fertilize it lightly during its main growing season, from late winter to mid-fall … or not at all.
Most people just let the plant dangle naturally from its pot, but you can also easily train it up a trellis or topiary form. It will not climb on its own: you’ll have to twist its stems around the support or uses ties or clips to hold them.
The variegated sweetheart vine is very easy to multiply, either by cutting free a tuber or two, rooted or unrooted, to press into slightly moist potting mix or doing the same with a stem cutting, making sure at least one node is in contact with the soil. I’ve dropped pieces into envelopes and mailed them to friends with no special attention other than shipping in mild weather and they came through fine. You can also let a branch run into a neighboring pot where it will layer itself (root) and can then be cut free.
I rarely repot this plant. After 4 or 5 years, when I feel it is getting a bit too straggly, I just take cuttings and start a new one, avoiding the complications of repotting a plant with such long stems without getting them hopelessly tangled.
Theoretically, it could have mealybugs or scale insects, and like most succulents could suffer rot in wet conditions, but mine have never shown any sign of insects or disease, and I’ve grown the non-variegated version for almost 40 years.
What does happen, though, are reversions. Certain stems revert back to the non-variegated form (green leaves with silvery veins) and then they slowly start to take over. This is not an overwhelming problem—maybe a reversion or two a year on a well-established plant—, but do be aware that most plants will put out a reversion every now and think. So, just pinch or cut it off and let the variegated form dominate.
Likewise, sometimes entirely albino stems appear. Being without chlorophyll, they live at the expense of the mother plant and likewise can simply be clipped off.
Also, the flowers are quite messy: with a few dropping to the floor on a daily basis when bloom is heavy, driving my wife nuts. Fortunately, we now have a robot vacuum that has no trouble picking them up.
Where to Find a Variegated Sweetheart Vine?
Given the huge popularity of succulents these days, expect variegated sweetheart vine to show up occasionally in local garden centers among their usual succulent shipments. If not, try the Internet, either a specialist succulent nursery or online marketplaces like Amazon and Etzy. Prices vary wildly (I saw one offered $99.99 on Etzy: that’s insane!), but you should not be paying a fortune for this easy-to-grow, easy-to-multiply plant: it really ought to be dirt cheap.
Of course, once you have one, share cuttings with a friend!
If you can’t find the variegated form, at least regular sweetheart vine (C. linearis woodii), without the white and pink variegation, really is widely available. I know my local garden center carries it all the time. It’s nice enough and easy to grow, although I don’t find it has the charm of the variegated form to my eye.
Here’s a thought! Obtain a plant of variegated sweetheart vine this spring or summer, then take cuttings and prepare the perfect Valentine’s day gift for next year!