Fall: A Sad Season for Climbing Houseplants

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My pink cissus (Cissus adenopoda, now Cyphostemma adenopoda) attempting a takeover of a white spruce. Source: laidbackgardener.com

September is the time of year for me to bring my houseplants back indoors … and the ones the most reluctant to come in are the climbing plants.

I hang their baskets outside for the summer from the branches of the various trees on my property … and they love it! After long months dangling from their pots with nowhere to go but down, they finally get to do what they really want and reach for the sky. They quickly cling to nearby branches and try to hoist themselves up.

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Propellor plant (Dischidia albida) massively invading my crabapple. Source: laidbackgardener.com

Some have tendrils or stems that wrap around branches, others literally cling to the bark of trees with aerial roots or suckers. They’re doing what comes naturally and it’s easy to see they’re having the time of their lives.

Then comes fall and the return to domestic life indoors. I don’t even bother trying to untangle them from their host: I know from experience that simply breaks stems and leaves, leaving them worse off. Instead, I just cut off the clinging growth and bring them back indoors, shorn and chastened.

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My variegated sweetheart hoya (Hoya kerrii ‘Variegata’) put out a 7-foot (2 m) stem this summer. Indoors, it rarely grows more than 6 inches (15 cm) a year! Source: Laidbackgardener.blog

Which plants do this? Mostly the faster-growing ones, like cissuses (Cissus adenophylla and C. amazonica are two I grow) and mandevillas (Mandevilla cvs), but even the apparently slow-growing hoyas (Hoya kerrii) and dischidias (Dischidia albida) take off at a rapid pace outdoors and need to be chopped back.

The aroids, like the various cultivars of heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum) and pothos (Epipremnum spp.), though, always seem slower on the uptake and fail to profit from their summer host trees, just dangling downwards. I still have to trim them back, though, as their stems have gotten overly long and I don’t want plants creeping all over my floor indoors.

It’s a bit like tough love for vining houseplants. I know they hate being pruned, but they’re tropical plants and simply can’t remain outdoors permanently, not in my cold winter climate. So, snip, snip and in they come. Then they can spend the winter dreaming about being back outdoors again next summer!

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The Tough as Nails Houseplant Nobody Knows

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Dischidia albida in my plant room. Source: laidbackgardener.blog

I grow a lot of houseplants (over 300 different varieties), but one of the toughest is certainly the propeller plant, Dischidia albida. Never heard of it? I’m not surprised. Pretty much nobody has!

I’ve been growing this plant since 2001 (over 15 years) after I ordered a cutting from Glasshouse Works. Yes. A cutting. Unrooted. It’s proven itself to be remarkably easy to grow and makes a great no-nonsense hanging basket plant, yet it’s not a plant you hear about very often. Indeed, I can’t even guarantee that Dichidia albida is the right name, because so little information about it is available.

Family Ties

The genus Dischidia is in the Apocynaceae family (dogbane family). It hails from tropical areas of Southeast Asia, with D. albida coming from peninsular Malaysia. The plants are epiphytic (they grow on tree branches and trunks) and vining. So, in the wild, it roots into bark, not soil. The leaves (and, in the case of D. albida, the stems as well) are succulent, designed to store moisture during the monsoon season and survive off that during the long dry season, resulting in a very low-care plant. Dischidias are closely related to hoyas (Hoya spp.), though with less spectacular blooms.

Most dischidias have fairly thin spoon-, heart- or coin-shaped leaves, but the propeller plant stands out from the crowd with its thick, longer, narrower leaves: definitely more succulent than the others. They vary in shape (not an unusual characteristic for a dischidia), some being nearly tubular, others flatter and more propellerlike.

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The propellor plant is too slow growing to be truly invasive, but you do have to trim back wandering stems every now and then. Source: laidbackgardener.blog

The leaves are borne in well-spaced pairs on fairly thick twining stems and both stems and leaves are a curious yellowish-green color, almost ghostly in appearance. The stems will wrap around trellises and branches if given a chance, often mingling with neighboring plants and thus needing to be cut back every now and then. Aerial roots are formed that will cling to bark and other rough surfaces when those are available.

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This is not Dischidia albida, but a similar species seen in Thailand that practically covered the lower branches of its host tree. It gives an idea how dischidias grow in the wild. Source:  laidbackgardener.blog

As for size, I’m sure this plant could easily reach 10 feet (3 m) in height if you gave it something tall to cling to. If there is nothing it can wrap around, the stems will trail downward a good 3 feet (90 cm) before twining their way back up, making the plant of special interest for hanging baskets.

Although fairly slow-growing, the propeller plant will certainly fill in a hanging basket. I’ve kept mine in the same container for 15 years now and it’s still going strong. It’s one of those climbers that becomes so dense and intertwined it would be easier to take cuttings and start a new plant rather than trying to extricate the old plant from its pot.

It blooms readily but sporadically, mostly in summer, but the flowers are tiny little white urns, clustered at the leaf axils to boot rather than projecting outwards where you could see them better. Really not very showy. The flowers are borne from short spurs like those of hoyas, spurs that rebloom repeatedly over the years. I’ve never noticed any seed formation.

Care

I’ve given my plant everything from full indoor sun to fairly deep shade. I grow it on the dry side, as a succulent, thus watering when the soil is dry to the touch. Unlike many succulents, most of which come from dry climates and thus poorly tolerate humid air, this plant comes from seasonal monsoon forests and will put up with both low and extreme atmospheric humidity, so you can grow it with both tough succulents and tender ferns and it will do well in both cases. I rarely fertilize it nor does it seem to react much to fertilizer treatments.

One thing I’ve never done is to expose it to cold. Logically, given its tropical origins, it would need warm to hot temperatures all year long.

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The leaves are vaguely propeller-shaped. Source: laidbackgardener.blog

My plant spends its winters indoors, then goes outdoors from late June to September. While it’s outside, I simply hang the basket from a tree branch, a situation I figure is much like how it would grow in the wild. It seems to love this and by summer’s end, has sent out stems in all directions, twining around the tree’s branches and even producing aerial roots to cling to them. Thus, I need to “prune it free” to bring it indoors in the fall.

It’s worth noting that I give the plant no care at all in the summer, letting Mother Nature do all the work. If the summer is rainy, it receives plenty of water; if the summer is dry, it doesn’t. It doesn’t seem to mind one way or the other.

Cuttings root readily: just stick them into a small pot of soil, making sure at least one node is covered, and water occasionally.

Dischidias make good terrarium plants and are often used to decorate reptile terrariums and other vivariums, being tough enough to support a bit of scratching and digging. Their toxicity is unknown, but herpetologists report no negative results.

Where to Find One?

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I ordered my plant from Glasshouse Works. Since I live in Canada and GW is in the US, I had to obtain an import permit.

There’s the rub. Dischidias in general and the propeller plant in particular are not common houseplants. Glasshouse Works still carries it and there are other Internet suppliers where you can order it by mail. Or you just might happen upon one in your local garden center when a new shipment of succulents comes in. I do see it sold that way occasionally.

If you do come across one, you’ve just found one of the easiest houseplants ever!20171122A