By Larry Hodgson
This tropical climber is very popular as a gift plant, be it as a present for others or a gift you offer yourself. And it’s hard to resist, with its deliciously perfumed tubular white flowers and shiny green leaves. Plus, it’s usually sold growing very attractively around a hoop: such an original presentation. What’s not to like?
That said, while it’s easy enough to keep alive, getting a stephanotis to rebloom can be a bit of a challenge. So, here are a few secrets about this remarkable plant.
This tropical liana—Stephanotis floribunda, now officially Marsdenia floribunda—comes from Madagascar, where it grows to heights of 6 m (20 ft) or more, wrapping its twining stems around shrubs and tree trunks. It’s often called Madagascar jasmine, but, although it bears many small, white, highly perfumed, trumpet-shaped flowers like so many jasmines (Jasminus spp.), the two belong to different families. That would be the Apocynaceae family in the case of the stephanotis, and the Oleaceae family in the case of the jasmines.
The name Stephanotis comes from the Greek stephanos (crown) and otos (ear), referring to the ear-like appendages in the center of the flower. The species name, floribunda, means floriferous. And the new name, Marsdenia, honors William Marsden (1754–1836), First Secretary to the British Admiralty in the early 1800s and author of the History of Sumatra (1783).
Besides Madagascar jasmine, stephanotis is often called bridal flower, as the scented white blossoms are often used in preparing bridal bouquets and wreaths. Indeed, the plant is grown by the thousands in tropical countries and in greenhouses all over the world just for that purpose. Thanks to careful climate control, stephanotis flowers are available year-round.
This climber can only be grown outdoors in the mildest of climates (USDA hardiness 12) as it tolerates no frost or even low temperatures. For most of the planet, therefore, it’s strictly a houseplant, and so it shall be treated here.
From a crayonlike wraparound green stem grow pairs of thick, leathery, dark green, shiny leaves that are elliptical or ovate in form. They’re about 2 in (5 cm) wide and 3 ½ in (9 cm) long. Without bloom, the plant could be mistaken for its distant relative, the hoya (Hoya carnosa or similar). In spring and summer, clusters of pure white waxy trumpets with a star-shaped tip appear at the leaf axils. They give off a delicious perfume and last several days. They are produced sporadically through the summer.
Seeds are almost never produced in culture and certainly not indoors. If ever a seed capsule does appear, you’d certainly notice it. It looks like a 5 to 6-inch (12 to 15-cm) green mango! After 6 to 9 months, the capsule will split open to reveal seeds with little white parachutes each bearing a flattened oval seed, much like those of its relative, the milkweed (Asclepias).
Do note that when the plant is producing seeds, it will be unlikely to bloom further: seed production requires all its energy. It will start to rebloom the following year, given, of course, good conditions.
The plant is generally sold simply under the name Stephanotis floribunda and usually no cultivar name is given. That said, though, horticultural selections are clearly smaller and more compact in their habit than the original species.
S. floribunda ‘Variegata’ (‘Marginata’) is a variegated form with ivory to yellow margins and occasionally some silvery overlay. It’s very slow-growing and expensive, but absolutely charming if you can find it! A warning, though: it’s harder to bloom than the species.
Caring for a Stephanotis
When you buy a stephanotis without looking into its care in any way, you often find it quite easy to maintain. If you buy it in the spring, the ideal situation, it will likely continue blooming sporadically, with fresh clusters of flowers appearing at the leaf axils, from mid-spring through the summer and sometimes well into fall. It’s getting it to bloom again the next year where things become more complicated. So, if your idea is to buy a stephanotis, enjoy its bloom and wonderful perfume, then toss it into the compost when the flowers fade, that makes perfect sense. There are so many other plants gardeners treat as annuals: stephanotis can just be one more! However, I must admit that I do keep mine growing year after year. Glutton for punishment? Maybe! Or maybe I just enjoy the challenge!
Given this dichotomy—easy to grow, yet hard to rebloom—, I’ve accorded this plant two levels of difficulty: medium when it comes to general care. It applies if you only intend to hang onto it for a few months. However, you would need to consider it challenging if your goal is to keep it through the winter and try for a new season of bloom.
Helpful Hint: Don’t move a stephanotis when it’s in bloom or its flowers may drop.
Light: For most plants, light is the main factor in healthy growth and flowering. With this plant, though, not that it doesn’t need plenty of light, but most difficulties come from overly warm or cool winter temperatures or excess water during the winter.
Give it bright light with as much full sun as you can, but some protection from the extreme summer heat. So, perhaps you could move it back from the window at that season. Or place it behind sheer curtains. You certainly need to give it the brightest light you can during the winter to help prepare the coming flowering season.
As long as your local climate is reasonably warm, your stephanotis will enjoy spending a summer outdoors. Just acclimatize it to outdoor conditions first and, of course, bring it back indoors before fall temperatures drop too seriously.
Watering: This is easy enough! Just give stephanotis regular watering, following the golden rule of watering, like almost any other houseplant. When the soil is dry to the touch, water abundantly, but never let it sit in water. However, in the winter, when it slows down, water less. Let the soil dry out a few days before watering again, although letting it go bone dry. Whenever you do water, though, always water abundantly.
If possible, avoid using hard water with this plant. You may need to use rainwater or dehumidifier water, both sources of naturally soft water.
Atmospheric Humidity: Stephanotis does much better in moist air than dry air. Try for a relative humidity of at least 50%. In certain cases, you may need to run a room humidifier during the winter months to keep the humidity up.
Fertilizer: There is no need to go overboard with fertilizing: too much fertilizer can stimulate green growth, but prevent bloom. Just apply your usual houseplant fertilizer or all-purpose fertilizer at about one quarter of the recommended rate. This is best done in the spring and summer. Don’t fertilize in fall or winter.
Temperature: Normal indoor temperatures, about 65–80°F (18–26°C), are fine in summer, but this plant needs a cool, but not cold winter in order to bloom again. Temperatures below 50?F (10?C) can be harmful, though. You need to place your stephanotis in a brightly lit spot where it can undergo night temperatures between 55 and 60°F (13–15°C) for a month or two in the winter. It will need less water at that time, but do not combine this cool period with extreme drought: this plant is not a succulent, after all. Your plant might well survive an arid winter, but that will likely suppress its flowering.
Repotting: Stephanotis is said to bloom better when slightly root-bound, but there is no need to exaggerate. Indeed, fairly developed specimens are often sold in bloom in 6-inch (15-cm) pots that are too small to easily support the plant. You would probably do well to repot yours into a larger container shortly after bringing it home from the nursery. Afterwards, repot every two or three years.
Ordinary commercial potting mix is well drained and holds both moisture and fertilizer, perfect for this plant.
Grooming: One thing to consider shortly after purchase is whether you want yours to continue to wrap around a hoop . . . and a small hoop at that. After all, this plant will keep trying to grow to a considerable height! You’d probably do better to remove it from its hoop and attach it to a more substantial trellis while it’s still fairly young and its climbing stems are easy to unravel. Or let it trail and grow it in a hanging basket.
Prune as needed to keep your plant under control. Since stephanotis blooms on new wood, the ideal moment to prune is in late winter or early spring, just before the plant comes out of its winter downtime. You can prune it quite harshly if needed and it will soon recover.
Multiplication: This plant is easy to grow from stem cuttings. Just insert 4 to 6-inch (10 to 15-cm) non-flowering 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.
Although your stephanotis will not likely produce seeds (if so, the pod can take up to 9 months to mature), you can find stephanotis seeds online. They are easy to sow. Just remove the “parachute” and barely cover the seeds with growing mix, then keep moist and well lit. Place the container in warmth (a heating pad is recommended) and high humidity, such as under a clear plastic dome. Germination takes from 2 to 4 weeks. Seedlings are at least a year from producing their first blooms.
Toxicity: There is some controversy here, as stephanotis belongs to the Apocynaceae family that contains many poisonous plants, but serious sources consider it safe for both children and pets. There are no cases of poisoning on record.
Lack of bloom is a the most common issue. Follow the instructions above, especially in providing the brightest light possible and warm temperatures and even watering in spring and summer, followed by a cool but not cold winter with reduced watering.
Flower drop can occur if the plant is moved while in bud or bloom or when it is over or underwatered.
A few yellowing leaves are normal, especially on older specimens, but the presence of a large number of them can indicate over- or underwatering, a major temperature drop or the repeated use of very hard water.
The most common plant pests on stephanotis are mealybugs and scale insects, but spider mites and aphids are not unknown. New plants should be placed in isolation for at least a month until you’re sure they’re pest free. Most insects can be controlled by regularly spraying with neem oil or insecticidal soap.
Stephanotis: beautiful, scented, exotic . . . and a bit of a challenge on which you can test your green-thumb skills!