Pretty much the strangest plant you’ll ever grow!
By Larry Hodgson
This plant (Muehlenbeckia platyclada, formerly Homalocladium platycladum) is certainly an oddball. It produces tall, arching stems that are green, glossy … and flat. Really flat! Like paper! As if someone had run them over with a lawn roller.
They’re long and narrow, which gives them the common name ribbon bush. And if you look closely, you’ll see the flat stem is divided into segments, giving it yet two other common names: tapeworm plant, for its flat segmented habit, and centipede plant, for the arthropod with a similarly multi-segmented body.
But what the ribbon bush doesn’t have are leaves. Or at least, it doesn’t produce many. And when they do appear, they soon drop off. Some new stems bear them, others don’t. They’re small, thin and pointed, often with lobes at the base giving them an arrow shape, with no petiole. The plant really doesn’t need leaves, though, as it carries out photosynthesis through its leaflike green stems.
They’re not officially stems, by the way, but are actually called phylloclades: a stemlike structure that carries out photosynthesis. As specimens grow, they do produce thicker cylindrical stems, a bit reddish in color, from the base of the plant, but even these end in flat phylloclades.
Under really good light, tiny greenish white flowers appear in clusters on the phylloclades, where two joints meet, in the spring and lead to tiny red berries (later black) said to be edible.
Ribbon plant is sold as a houseplant, but also as an annual for containers and, in mild enough climates, as a shrub or climbing plant. (It will climb only if it can find something to lean on, as its stems don’t twine or otherwise grip surfaces.) Think of it as green mass growing up to 3 ft (1 m) or so, then arching out from there and you pretty much have the picture. Outdoors, it can readily reach 6 ft (180 cm) or more in height. Indoors … just cut overly long stems back and you can keep it at pretty much any height.
I’m struggling to memorize the new botanical name for ribbon bush: Muehlenbeckia platyclada. (“Platyclada” means “broad stem.”) I knew it as Homalocladium platycladum, as did most other gardeners, I suppose. It was, under that name, considered monotypic: the only plant in the genus Homalocladium. However, its new genus, Muehlenbeckia, contains some 25 other species, mostly with wiry stems and small leaves. They’re often called wire vines. M. complexa and M. axillaris are two examples, both occasionally grown as houseplants.
The genus name honors Henri Gustave Muehlenbeck (1798–1845) physician at Mulhouse, France.
The genus Muehlenbeckia belongs to the knotweed family (Polygonaceae).
From New Guinea to Your Living Room
Ribbon bush comes from New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and other Pacific islands. It’s grown as an ornamental all over the world, though, and has escaped from culture in some tropical areas, naturalizing in such countries as India, Bolivia, Madagascar, Pakistan and Nicaragua. It can even take a bit of frost, down to 25 °F (-4 °C), although that will kill it to the ground.
In climates other than the most tropical (USDA hardiness zones 9 to 12), it is either grown as a houseplant or as a container plant and brought back indoors when temperatures drop in the fall. The other alternative is to treat it like an annual and let it freeze.
Helpful Hint: Although the ribbon bush is sold both as an annual and a houseplant, it will cost less when sold in the Annuals section of your garden center, so look there first!
Caring for a Ribbon Bush
This is certainly an easy-enough plant to grow, as long as you don’t mind a lot of pruning, best done to keep the plant in check from the start rather than trying to “put the genie back into the bottle” by trying to cut back a mature plant! Once this plant really takes off, it can become huge and overgrown surprisingly quickly.
Light: Outdoors, ribbon bush adapts to everything from full sun to considerable shade. Indoors, where light is much more subdued, think “intense to medium light,” so therefore, place it near a window where it can receive at least a few hours of sunlight each day, although it will hang on for quite a while in partial shade. It does wonderfully under fluorescente and LED grow lamps as well.
Watering: Normally, just give it a typical houseplant watering. That is, wait until the soil is dry to the touch, then water abundantly, soaking the root ball. In fact, it’s more tolerant of wet soils than the average houseplant. In good light, you can even leave it soaking constantly in water!
While the ribbon plant is said to be somewhat drought resistant, that mainly refers to outdoors, where its extensive root system can find moisture even under fairly dry circumstances. If it’s in a pot, keeping it too dry can kill it.
Atmospheric Humidity: It does much better in moist air than dry air. Try for a relative humidity of at least 40%; 50% is much better. A bathroom or laundry room should work. In certain cases, you may need to run a room humidifier during the winter months to keep the humidity up.
Fertilizer: The more you “feed” it, the faster the ribbon plant will grow … and most people feel it grows just fine with occasional applications of only a very dilute fertilizer in the spring and summer.
Temperature: Normal to hot indoor temperatures are best. Temperatures below 50?F (10?C) can be harmful.
Grooming: Prune regularly, as needed. My rule of thumb is to cut branches back to 2 to 3 ft (60 to 90 cm) when they reach 3 to 4 ft (90 to 120 cm). That gives a nice full plant that doesn’t take over your home.
Repotting: This is a fast-growing plant and may need annual repotting into increasingly large pots for the first few years. This is best done in spring or summer, but don’t hesitate to do it in fall or winter if necessary.
Any commercial potting mix will do.
Multiplication: Seed is rarely available, but this plant is easy to grow from stem cuttings. Just insert 4 to 6 inch (10 to 15 cm) cuttings into moist growing mix and grow under high humidity—a mini-greenhouse, for example—and warm temperatures. Rooting is fastest in spring and summer.
You can also divide a large plant, although that can be quite a task.
Toxicity: The plant is considered safe for both children and pets.
Problems: Ribbon plant is not usually much bothered by disease, except perhaps rot when grown in poorly drained soil under cold conditions or poor light. Insects are infrequent, but do keep an eye out for mealybugs and scale insects.