Monday, January 2, 2012

Mother of thousands

An umbrella of red blooms sits atop a leggy stalk on a Mother-of-thousands plant

Simply Living
January 2, 2012

There’s a plant growing in my yard that I can’t seem to get rid of.  Some people call it Mexican hat plant, Devil’s backbone or Alligator plant.  Others know it as ‘Mother-of-thousands’ but from my experience, ‘Mother-of-millions’ might be a more appropriate moniker. 

The botanical name of this prolifically reproducing succulent is Kalanchoe daigremontianac.  Native to southwestern Madagascar, Mother-of-thousands is a perennial in Florida and other warm-weather regions of the country.  In colder climates, it is cultivated as a houseplant and perhaps that’s where it belongs – some place where carpet, tile and hardwood flooring will limit its uncanny ability to self-propagate prodigiously. 

Mother-of-thousands looks a bit like aloe.  This potentially 3-foot-tall plant has a center stalk out of which grow a series of fleshy, 4 to 6-inch long serrated leaf-like stems that are green with a hint of purple on the undersides.  During winter months, the stalk can produce an umbrella shaped terminal from which dozens of bell-like red flowers dangle.   

Hummingbirds favor this attractive bit of botanical finery, which should make this easy-to-care-for perennial a welcome addition to the wildlife garden.  Unfortunately, its invasive nature counterbalances its more positive features.

The key to Mother-of-thousands’s reproductive magic is visible on the edge of each of its leaf-like stems where small, round dark-colored plantlets form.  One ‘leaf’ can contain 20 to 50 of these babies-in-waiting and every Mother-of-thousands plant boasts at least a dozen leaf-like stems.  Do the math and the potential problem becomes obvious.

When the plantlets fall off, sometimes with white thread-like roots already in place, they settle on the ground and proceed to grow.  Not fussy about soil needs, Mother-of-thousands seedlings have successfully rooted on our property in moist spots as well as in areas where water supply is limited.  Much to my vexation, these tenacious succulents even manage to flourish where soil is seemingly nonexistent.  I’ve seen plantlets achieve purchase in the cracks of concrete walkways as well as in the narrow spaces between our paved patio and stucco walls.   

Who needs dirt?  Mother-of-thousands can sprout and grow in the tiniest crack in concrete

On the positive side, Mother-of-thousands is easy to uproot.  One yank with a gloved hand (to protect against the serrated edges) can pull these shallow-rooted perennials from their roost.  On the negative side, each yank has the potential to dislodge several of the small, round dark-colored plantlets, making the entire let’s-just-yank-them-out-to-get-rid-of-these-pests plan redundant.

Considering the difficulty of total eradication, I’ve opted for the same approach with Mother-of-thousands as I’ve taken for Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana) and wedelia (Wedelia trilobata), two other overly active reproducers that I made the mistake of introducing to the property.  I stop treating them like garden plants.  I dig up and relocate the offending perennials to wooded areas where they receive no irrigation or soil enrichment.  I’ve found that when I stop treating invasives like pampered garden plants, they stop acting like unruly, out-of-control pests.       

Mother-of-thousands isn’t a bad plant.  It just isn’t the right plant to put in certain places.

Learning as much as possible about a plant’s behavior before installing it in your yard goes a long way toward avoiding future problems but don’t fool yourself into thinking education will put an end to errors.  A cultivar’s beauty, color, fragrance or special characteristics can sway the mindset of even the best-intentioned gardener. 

To prevent plants like Mother-of-thousands from becoming Mother-of-millions, exercise a gardener’s form of tough love: “You can stay on the property but I won’t spoil you.”

When miscalculations occur, make the best of them.  Sometimes an effective compromise is the right answer when total eradication is too daunting. 

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