Houseplant of the month

The Lipstick Plant: The March 2024 Houseplant of the Month

Few houseplants are guaranteed to bloom, or even to bloom without managing resting or cooling cycles (which is not always easy, especially for the neophyte or laidback gardener). Aeschynanthus is a slightly delicate plant to care for, but it doesn’t disappoint, gracing bright spaces with its glossy foliage and, under the right conditions, its typical flowering.

Origin of Aeschynanthus

Aeschynanthus takes its name from the ancient Greek aischune, meaning shame or disgrace, and anthos, meaning flower (the same word that gave rise to Chrysanthemum, Anthurium or Nematanthus). This name, meaning the flower of shame, was given because of its bright red flowers, the color of a person who is ashamed, or its tubular shape, reminiscent of someone who bows their head in disgrace.

Its common name is the lipstick plant, a name clearly given because of its flowers, which emerge from a calyx as lipstick would from its tube. It is sometimes called lipstick vine.

The plant is native to Southeast Asia, with varieties appearing from the islands of Indonesia to the subtropical Himalayas. The 150 or so species belong to the genus Aeschynanthus in the Gesneriaceae family, which includes many flowering houseplants such as Saintpaulia, Streptocarpus and Nematanthus. Aeschynanthus was first listed by the botanist William Jack, who died at the early age of 27, and became official in publications after his death.

Description

Lipstick plants are herbaceous evergreens. Epiphytic in nature, they don’t grow on the ground, but rather on other plants (called phorophytes), without parasitizing them. Their stems don’t climb; on the contrary, they hang elegantly and naturally. They gradually become covered with several pairs of elliptical, particularly glossy green leaves. When grown in full sun, they may have a slightly purple edge. The leaves are quite fleshy, enough so that the plant is sometimes considered a succulent or semi-succulent. At the tips of the branches appear small calyxes of various colors, often purple, the buds, from which emerge tubular flowers with five petals, usually red, whose shape allows hummingbirds in particular to drink nectar.

Close-up of a stem exposed to the sun, to appreciate the semi-succulence of the leaves: not thin, but not too fleshy either!Photo par Pavel Hrdlika.

Varieties

The precise species of lipstick plants sold on the market is rarely identified, let alone the parentage of hybrids or the name of cultivars, so it’s difficult for the new parent to know exactly which Aeschynanthus he or she is dealing with! Fortunately, most plants require much the same care.

Certaines espèces cultivées à l’intérieur

In terms of species grown indoors, we can see:

  • A. pulcher: commonly grown indoors, with purple buds and red flowers. It could be called a “basic” aeschynanthus; its flowers are one of the reasons it’s known as the lipstick plant. It has been called by several other names, including A. lobbianus in North America, and used to be distinguished from the species A. radicans, but now all bear the name A. pulcher. Because of its particularly fleshy leaves, it’s best to let the soil dry out further, as the plant will even tolerate brief dry periods of a few days at most;
  • A. speciosus: This species, with its green calyxes and bicolored yellow to orange flowers, tolerates colder temperatures (up to 8°C, 46F) than other species. It is a large, continuous-flowering plant, a trait it has passed on to the hybrid plants that have evolved from it;
  • A. longicaulis: This plant, nicknamed “zebra vine”, is easily identified by the zebra patterns on its green leaves, which have a brown underside. The flowers are much more discreet, of a green that camouflages itself in the foliage. It’s particularly easy to grow;
  • Less frequently encountered species include A. buxifolius and A. humilis, which are smaller in size. The latter, not being a succulent, will require more delicate watering management. Although it doesn’t seem to be grown indoors a priori, A. curtisii stands out from the other plants for its flowers, which are notably arched skywards: they catch the rain, which fills the flower buds and keeps them well moistened.

As usual, this list is not exhaustive.

Photo of A. longicaulis, showing the striped foliage with purple undersides and the traditional Aeschynanthus flowering, but in a more subdued color. Photo par Scott Zona.

Some Hybrids

There are also various hybrids, which have been crossed to improve one aspect or another of the lipstick plant. There are, for example, hybrids that flower in the leaf axils rather than just at the tip of the branch. The Gesneriad Society is doing a good job of gathering information on the parentage of these hybrids, notably from hybridizers such as Bill Saylor and Michael Kartuz.

Hybrids with particularly interesting characteristics include the following:

  • A. ‘Black Pagoda’: a hybrid that has kept the zebra foliage of A. longicaulis and the orange bloom of A. speciosus, to make an attractive plant at all times, blooming or not;
  • A. ‘Big Apple’ and A. ‘Firecracker’, two hybrids derived from A. micranthus (with A. humilis and A. parviflorus respectively), have developed particularly abundant flowering, even under artificial (but intense) light. Under the right conditions, flowering is continuous;
  • Some complex hybrids derived from A. pulcher have strangely curved foliage, reminiscent of Hoya compacta. Cultivars include ‘Twister’, ‘Curly’ and ‘Rasta’;
  • Other interesting but rare hybrids include A. ‘Holiday Bells’, a complex hybrid with surprisingly dark foliage, A. pulcher ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Tangerine’, with orange flowers, and A. chinanthus ‘Thai Pink’ with translucent pinkish-green calyxes topped with pink flowers.
  • And many more…!

Finally, there are also plants with variegated foliage, such as A. pulcher variegata and A. micranthus variegata. One can imagine that, like other variegated plants, the already high light requirements of lipstick plants are increased, and flowering less assured.

Here, an A. pulcher hybrid with yellow flowers. Photo par Mokkie.

Growing Tips

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Light

Aeschynanthus is best grown in bright light with a little direct sunlight indoors. Medium light will be enough for the plant to survive, but you’ll rarely get flowers and it will be much more prone to cultivation problems. Avoid direct sunlight during summer heatwaves, which can burn its leaves.

Watering

The water requirements of a lipstick plant depend on the succulence of its leaves: thick, fleshy leaves require less water, and vice-versa for thin leaves. The safest thing to do is to aim for a potting soil that is not soggy, that dries out in the first few centimetres before watering, but never dries out completely.

During the flowering period, it’s normal for the plant to require tenfold attention and more frequent watering.

Under medium lighting, be very careful with potting soil that remains wet for long periods, as this can lead to rotting. Adjust watering accordingly to light levels.

Beware of watering with cold water: Aeschynanthus can easily be damaged. Prefer water at room temperature (this advice applies to all plants, but particularly to this one).

A humid atmosphere is preferable at all times, but lipstick plants usually tolerate the air in our homes.. Photo d’A. pulcher, par Geoff McKay.

Potting Soil

A light, airy potting soil is preferred, reminiscent of the plant’s epiphytic nature. Although a traditional houseplant substrate is suitable, it is preferable to add draining elements (pieces of bark, perlite, pumice, etc.).

A naturally more aerated potting soil for cacti and succulents would be appropriate. In fact, you could even grow Aeschynanthus in orchid potting soil, but then you’d have to water the plant as you would orchids, by basking.

Keep in Mind!

There’s an important correlation to bear in mind between the type of potting soil and the watering required. Most potting soils for indoor plants are composed of coir fibers and more or less draining elements.

Coco fiber retains water well, making it ideal for plants that require moist soil at all times. However, if the potting soil dries out completely, it becomes hydrophobic and requires drenching (i.e. soaking the entire pot in water for ten to thirty minutes).

More draining potting soils, such as those for cacti and succulents, retain less water; this aerated potting soil reduces the risk of root asphyxia, which causes rotting and plant death. It does, however, require more frequent watering.

Orchid potting soils are in a class of their own: they are usually made from pieces of bark. Orchid potting soils are extremely aerated and retain little water, which is why orchids are immersed in water for around 30 minutes to ensure adequate watering.

Photo of A. speciosus, whose bicoloured orange-yellow flowers have been passed down to most of its “descendants”, by C. T. Johansson.

It depends on your watering style and where you put the lipstick plant.

A distracted gardener with bright light will do very well with a plant grown in coconut fibre, which will make up for his forgetfulness. On the other hand, a plant grown in medium light would benefit from more sparing watering, and the over-generous gardener should perhaps use orchid potting soil for his lipstick plant, which reduces the risk of over-watering. And for anyone in between: there’s nothing to stop you making a mix!

Potting

Like many epiphytic plants, the root network of the lipstick plant is not particularly well developed, so it can tolerate many years in the same pot, and you’ll sometimes see an imposing plant, with long vines lined with leaves and flowers… that hasn’t even filled its pot with roots yet!

When repotting, avoid drastically changing the size of the pot (if possible, take a pot with a slightly larger diameter, one inch maximum). And avoid touching the root ball, which is fragile.

Fertilizers

During the growing and flowering period, an all-purpose organic fertilizer at the recommended dose is a good idea to promote abundant flowering.

Temperature

Aeschynanthus is a very temperamental plant that requires tropical temperatures at all times. We’re talking about at least 18°C, so temperatures found around the house are often just right. From 16°C upwards, the plant goes into a state of rest, abandoning its buds and flowers, but it doesn’t die. If the temperature drops any further, the plant may suffer cold damage: it’s best to avoid subjecting it to this.

The dormant period is optional when flowers appear in spring. Another A. pulcher hybrid, with translucent green buds and soft pink flowers.Photo par Mokkie.

Maintenance

Aeschynanthus requires little special care. There are the usual elements of plant care: washing the leaves occasionally, removing dried leaves, flowers and buds when they fall off, and an occasional little pruning to encourage the appearance of branches, for a pleasing-looking plant. As with many plants, the stems may thin out at the base over the years, or the plant may become a little chaotic. Pruning, a summer in the sun, or both, are often all that’s needed to restore its youthfulness.

Multiplication

Aeschynanthus can be propagated by taking stem cuttings in water or potting soil. These require two constants: high temperatures (at least 23°C, a heating tray may be necessary) and high humidity (greenhouse conditions are necessary, get your plastic bags!). Despite this, the success rate is lower than with other climbers usually cut (Epipremnum, Philodendron, Cissus).

You can also take cuttings from a leaf by planting it in potting soil. In this case, include a piece of the petiole. Multiplication using this technique is extremely time-consuming and has a low success rate. It’s best to try it only if you need to remove healthy leaves, for example when preparing stem cuttings.

Tips

Personally, I have two techniques that I consider preferable to outright cuttings for Aeschynanthus.

The first is a technique that resembles aerial layering: since the plant produces long stems, it’s easy to strip off two leaves in the center of the stem and plant it in a pot of potting soil, rather like the stolons of a spider plant. You can hold it in place with bobby pins – I never buy them, yet I still find them at home or on the ground in the street (I’m quite comfortable using street pins when it comes to planting them in potting soil! Over time, the stem will put down roots, and when it’s strong enough, you can separate it from the mother plant.

The second option is to save the cuttings for the summer. I put a lot of plants outside in summer. They benefit from the heat, humidity and increased light. That’s also when I do most of my cuttings, especially for the slightly more difficult plants like Aeschynanthus. The success rate is much higher!

Toxicity

This plant is not toxic to you or your cats and dogs.

Presentation Tips

Aeschynanthus tend to produce long branches, which can be heavy, so their pot needs to be just as heavy. A terracotta pot, which naturally allows greater evaporation of water, is well suited to the needs of the lipstick plant.

Be careful where you place the plant: not only must its light requirements be met (and we often forget to check whether the plant is really receiving light when it’s gracefully dropped along a piece of furniture that ultimately blocks out the sun’s rays), but the support must also be strong enough for the plant’s weight!

Chis backlit photo shows the striped foliage of A. longicaulis. All Aeschynanthus are very beautiful in suspension. Photo by Andy King 50.

Problems


With its glossy foliage, it’s a beautiful vine to grow in a cascade at home. Aeschynanthus has it all: it’s beautiful in its colorful, swollen buds, and with its flowers, whose comical shape has given it its nickname. If you’re careful with its delicate watering, it’s a generous guest in our homes, a real feast for the eyes.

Photo par Krzysztof Ziarnek.

Colin Laverdure has no qualifications other than his last name (Laverdure is French for "the greenery") and a slightly excessive passion for plants of all kinds, but particularly for houseplants. When he's not watering his personal collection, he's interested in writing fiction or singing with his choir.

1 comment on “The Lipstick Plant: The March 2024 Houseplant of the Month

  1. Christine Lemieux

    I agree with the previous poster. My thoughts exactly!

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