Kalanchoe diagremontiania “Mother of Thousands” - Cactus Club

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Kalanchoe diagremontiania “Mother of Thousands”

Plant of the Month > Species I to M

by Bruce Brethauer  

      My first encounter with the “Mother of Thousands” dates back to more than 40 years ago, back to the days of my youth when I mowed lawns and did other odd jobs for people around my neighborhood. One of the persons who I worked for was Dr. Edward S. Thomas, a noted naturalist who had been the director of the Ohio Historical Society some years earlier. Dr Thomas grew an exceptional assortment of unusual perennials, and grew some curious houseplants as well. I recall at least 4 succulent plants in his collection– Gasteria armgstrongii, Stapelia gigantea, Agave victoria-regianae, and Kalanchoe diagremontiania, the so called Mother of Thousands. Of the four, it was the Mother of Thousands that first captured my interest. His was a smallish plant, measuring about 18 inches tall, with succulent, lance-shaped leaves [I] held in four ranks. The upper surface of the leaves are typically of a more or less uniform color which may vary from a dark apple green in plants grown in medium light to dark green suffused with brownish-rose tones in plants grown under brighter conditions. The undersides of the leaves are typically of a paler green coloration, and are attractively marked with irregular striations in purplish-maroon. The leaf margins are serrate, with tiny plantlets produced in each “nook”. These plantlets are very weakly attached, and can drop with the slightest disturbance. Wherever the plantlets fall onto suitable ground, they quickly put down roots and establish “new”plants[ii]

     The “Mother of Thousands” has a largely deserved reputation of being the Kudzu vine of the succulent world – where conditions are favorable, this plant can, and frequently will become invasive, quickly establishing hundreds, if not thousands of plantlets. Where conditions are especially favorable, this species can produce vast stands of genetically identical sister plants: in some regions of the country, where frosts are nearly nonexistent, this species can easily become a naturalized pest. This bad habit aside, the Mother of Thousands is an easy, interesting, and attractive plant – easy enough to grow for even the most inexperienced novices, but interesting and attractive enough that more seasoned growers will frequently maintain a plant in their collection.

           The Kalanchoes are a genus of plants in the Crassulaceae family, mostly native to tropical and sub-tropical regions of Africa, Madagascar, the Arabian Peninsula, and portions of Asia; but the greatest diversity of species can be found in Madagascar. Most species grow in regions which are seasonally dry rather than truly arid. The genus has proven very popular with growers and includes such plants as: “Elephants Ear” (Kalanchoe beharensis), the “Panda Plant” (Kalanchoe tomentosa), the“Pen Wiper Plant” (Kalanchoe marmorata). K thyristifolia, and others. While a good number of the Kalanchoes will also produce plantlets on their leaves (K. tubifolia, K. beharensis, and others) in this species, it has developed this capacity to the extreme. This means of self propagation has proven so successful that many plants propagate almost exclusively by this means alone. Kalanchoe diagremontiania does produce flowers, and will set seed, but to the best of my knowledge, few people will propagate it by this means, as it is so much easier to propagate by its fallen plantlets. It readily hybridizes with several other Kalanchoe species, such as K. tubifolia, but I am not aware of any serious attempts to intentionally hybridize this species to produce an improved “mother of thousands”.

      This is such an adaptable and forgiving species, that practically any growing regimen which includes bright light, sharply draining soil, and an occasional watering would probably result in reasonably good growth. It will grow quite well when provided with conditions outlined in my general guidelines for growing succulents, but to produce truly exceptional plants, it is best to grow this plant as a summer patio plant. When properly acclimatized to full sun, plants should produce exceptional growth, with more deeply colored and marked leaves. With somewhat more frequent watering, and a bit of extra fertilizer, this plant will grow up to about 3 to 4 feet in height with large, nicely colored leaves, laden with many plantlets. Plants grown in unprotected areas, where they will receive the full brunt of winds, and rain will be likely to have many of the plantlets knocked off their leaves; to minimize this, it would best to grow plants in a protected space along a southern or western foundation.

     In years past, when any number of  “ma and paw” nurseries were propagating succulents, tiny castaways of this plant could frequently be found as a bonus plant with other cactus purchases. Today, as nurseries become ever more streamlined and automated, it has become a bit more difficult to find this species in the trade. I imagine that it may even be illegal to grow this plant in some states, where it has a marked potential to become established as a weed, so I suspect that many nurseries have tried to eradicate all plants of this species from their greenhouses. A few succulent mail order nurseries still offer this plant, however, the easiest way to acquire a plant would be to contact your local cactus and succulent society – invariably, you will find at least one or two members who grow this species, who would be more than willing to share a few plantlets.

     Just a word of caution - in addition to this plant’s remarkable capacity to self replicate, it should be noted that it is also toxic, producing a powerful cardiac stimulant. It is not a suitable plant for households with inquisitive pets and very young children.

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