Maybe you should think of making the mother of thousands
plant a Mother’s Day gift!
By Larry Hodgson
Here’s a thought as a Mother’s Day gift. What about a mother of thousands plant? A living plant renowned for the numerous plantlets it bears all along its leaves. It’s a symbol of motherhood in its native Madagascar. Why not around the world?
Producing plantlets from a leaf is a very strange means of reproduction, one shared with very few other plants. Most plants propagate through seeds produced by flowers. But the mother of thousands plant doesn’t need to wait for bloom. Even as a young plant, rooted in soil and growing its first few leaves, there’ll be baby plants growing along their edges.
What Is It?
The main species of mother of thousands is an upright succulent plant called Kalanchoe daigremontiana, although you may find it under the name Bryophytum daigremontianum in older literature. It produces long, thick triangular leaves, shiny and gray-green on top, with purple stripes underneath. Dozens of tiny plantlets—thousands is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration!—line the little teeth along the leaf edges.
It’s also called Mexican hat plant (even though it comes from Madagascar), life plant and alligator plant (because of the teeth). The plantlets fall off at the slightest touch and root in neighboring pots. Thus, the plant’s owner always has dozens to offer visitors.
It’s a very reluctant bloomer, though, even in the wild. After all, mother of thousands doesn’t really need to ensure its survival in the wild through seeds. Not when it produces all those plantlets that are much faster and efficient at growing. So, it seems to have pushed flowering to the back burner. However, given several years of culture under hot, arid conditions in full sun, yours might just deign to bloom, with drooping tubular salmon red flowers on an umbrella-like terminal cyme.
It can grow very tall, up to 2 meters (7 feet), although usually much less. Also, it will likely need staking to reach any great height indoors. It does produce its own stakes in the form of sturdy aerial roots. They angle downwards from the stem and can help hold it up.
Of course, most people will have replaced the ungainly original mother of thousands, probably by then mostly a bare stem with leaves only at the top, with a shorter, space-saving daughter plant long before that.
The Other Mothers
There are other mother of thousands of species, though.
Chandelier plant (K. delagoensis, syn. K. tubiflora) is similar in color to K. daigremontiana, but the thick leaves are folded into a sort of canoe-shaped trough. The result is that there is only a narrow surface of upper green leaf visible. Instead, the underleaf, with its purple marbling, tends to dominate its appearance. It is less prolific in its production of babies than K. daigremontiana. Just 2 to 9 “babies” per leaf, borne towards the tip of the leaf. Perhaps we could call it “mother of dozens”?
The hybrid between the two, hybrid mother of thousands (K. × houghtonii), looks like an especially narrow-leaved K. daigremontiana, bearing babies all long the leaf edge as it does, and not just at the tip.
My favorite, though, is currently being sold as Big Momma kalanchoe (K. laetivirens). Some sources suggest that it’s a hybrid between K. daigremontiana and K. laxiflora. It’s a shorter, sturdier plant with broader blue-green leaves both above and below, so no sign of purple markings. It’s a better bloomer too, with attractive clusters of hanging salmon pink bell flowers in a terminal spire, although it can take a few years to get there. It can reach 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm) in height. It bears its blue-green babies all around its leaves.
Well, to be honest my favorite favorite is actually the incredibly colorful pink mother of thousands (K. × houghtonii ‘Pink Butterflies’). This is a somewhat more fragile and definitely much more expensive plant. Its baby plants are albinos, lacking chlorophyll, and are bright pink. However, since they lack chlorophyll, they can’t carry out photosynthesis, so won’t take if you try to root them. You can usually only multiply this one by stem cuttings, although rumor has it that a baby will occasionally have some green tissue and come true. The difficulty in multiplying it makes it expensive.
The Mother of Thousands Wannabe
There are some 125 species of kalanchoe (Kalanchoe spp.), among them several others that produce plantlets at least occasionally, but the ones above are the only species prolific enough in producing these tiny offsets to be called mother of thousands.
One of these species, K. pinnata, is very popular as a medicinal plant in tropical countries, where it has accumulated a huge number of common names: siempre vivo, fresh air plant, leaf of life, cathedral bells, Goethe plant (German botanist philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was fascinated by it), etc. It has also escaped from culture in many countries and is considered a pernicious weed in some of them. However, it’s also a popular medicinal plant, widely used in home remedies against just about any disease and condition you can imagine.
This kalanchoe differs from the mothers of thousands types in that it does not produce propagules spontaneously, but only after some sort of trauma or stress. In particular, when a leaf or part of a leaf is torn off and falls to the ground, baby plants start to form.
This habit brought it several years of popularity in the 1950s and 60s. Magazine and newspaper ads offered “miracle leaves,” “air plants” or “living leaves” by mail order with instructions to pin them to a curtain. That would cause baby plants to appear, much of the amazement of purchasers!
I find the most remarkable thing is the way it changes in appearance as it grows! Young plants produce simple elliptical green leaves with crenate edges, something quite common in the Crassulaceae family. But as it grows, they start growing in size, but especially dividing into 3, 5, 7 or even 9 leaflets. This divided form gives the plant its botanical epithet pinnata. It is pinnate, that is, arranged like a feather. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this plant for a fern when it has 9 leaflets!
Growing a Mother of Thousands
If you’re used to growing succulents (plants from arid climates that store water in their tissues), you’ll find this plant as easy as pie. So easy, indeed, that I often gave away babies of Big Momma when I used to lecture, at least back when it was a rare plant. (It isn’t any more and I may be one reason why!)
All people had to do was get it home without letting it freeze and drop the baby on top of a pot of soil. You don’t even have to plant it: its roots will find their own way into the potting soil on their own. In fact, you don’t even have to water the baby at first. There is moisture lurking even in dry-looking potting soil, straight from the bag, and the baby plants are programmed to find it! As a safety precaution against rot, I recommend waiting until the plantlet has rooted and started to grow before you start watering it.
Anecdote: I received the following e-mail a few years back.
Dear Mr. Hodgson,
At your lecture last September, I took one of your Big Momma babies and wrapped it in a Kleenex to put into my purse. Then forgot all about it. To my horror, I discovered it 7 months later when I cleaned that purse. I quickly potted up the poor thing and would you believe it is now growing! What a tough plant! 7 months in the dark without a drop of water and it’s still alive!
People who fail with this plant usually haven’t yet figured out that succulents need lots of sun and not that much water.
Give the mother of thousands the brightest light possible, even full sun, although it also does wonderfully under artificial light.
Under poor light, the little plants etiolate (stretch for the light). Beginner gardeners sometimes take this growth as a good sign, but the plant is actually crying out for help. If you don’t improve the conditions, it will eventually die. So, give it lots of light.
And water only when the soil is fully dry. In fact, in case of doubt, don’t water! This plant would rather go without any water for a month than receive water before its roots have had time to dry out! So, you might need to water every week or 2 in the summer, every 3 or 4 weeks in the winter. Under lights, where growth is even all year, the “water every week or 2” suggestion would likely apply.
Don’t expose this tropical plant (hardiness zones 9b to 12) to cold. Even 7˚C (45˚F) will weaken it, even kill it if kept up too long. And frost, of course, will make for a fast death. So, keep it warm at all times. It is very tolerant of hot, burning sun, so hot summers are just not a problem with this plant.
Don’t worry about either high or low atmospheric humidity. Like most succulents, the mother of thousands adapted to dry air over its long evolution under arid conditions. It will tolerate even the driest indoor air. Nor is it bothered by humid air, at least within normal limits. It still would not be a good choice for a spot that is extremely humid, like a terrarium.
It adapts equally well to just about any type of potting soil, as long as it drains well. And it needs very little fertilizer. Use the fertilizer of your choice (it really doesn’t care whether it’s succulent fertilizer or lawn fertilizer!) at no more than a quarter of the recommended dose, and only in spring or summer.
The Downsides to the Mother of Thousands
The mother of thousands just seemed too perfect, didn’t it? Here are two negative points to take into consideration.
It’s poisonous. To both people and pets. You can touch, but don’t eat it. Not that it will kill you or a pet, but it can make you ill. (It has been known to kill cattle and sheep that eat it repeatedly over long periods of time.) Just keep it out of reach of young children and pets.
It can become a weed indoors and will quickly jump into the pots of your other plants. The plants are allelopathic: toxic to other plants. In other words, they poison the soil and weaken their neighbors. That way they eliminate their competition! This takes months, even years, but still! For that reason, keep mothers of thousands well away from other plants. And pull out any babies that do find their way into other pots.
It’s even more likely to become a weed outdoors in a fairly arid tropical climate and indeed, has escaped from culture in many areas, such Florida, Hawaii, southern Europe and Argentina. In areas where there is no frost to kill any escapees, it’s best to keep this plant indoors. Even if you take great care to place it outdoors without jostling a baby, you can be sure that the wind will knock one free. And you wouldn’t want to cause a local weed infestation, would you? Of course, you can use it outdoors with impunity in temperate climates as a summer decoration. Any baby kalanchoes that make a break for freedom will be quashed by the cold of winter.
Mother’s Day Mission
So, your mission today is to pick up Mom and take her to the local garden center where you can spend some pleasant time together plant shopping and looking for her gift: a mother of thousands plant.
And when you find it and get Mom and the plant home and settled, do keep a baby for yourself. Soon you’ll have a little mother of thousands farm going on your windowsill and you can start sharing the babies with your friends!
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