Friday, January 3, 2014
There are hundreds of species of plants that people refer to as “succulents.” (We had one as a Mystery Plant only very recently! Here’s another one.)
All of the succulent plants have one thing in common: fleshy leaves and/or stems, and an ability to conserve water. Succulence is an obvious advantage to plants that grow in dry areas, and most succulent plants evolved in arid ecosystems, including deserts. (It is true, however, that many desert plants are not succulents…but these plants have usually developed other strategies for protection from water loss.)
A common misconception is that all succulent plants are cacti. Cacti are indeed succulents, but there are many, many species of succulents that are not at all related to cacti, even they may share some resemblance. Just because a plant has sharp, pointy leaves, or stickers all over it does not make it a cactus. (For that matter, there are plenty of cacti that don’t have any stickers or spines.) Thus, yucca and century-plant belong to the lily family, starfish flower and rope-plant belong to the milkweed family, crown-of-thorns belongs to the oleander family, and “ghost-plant,” that we read about recently, is a member of the “stonecrop” family. There are even truly succulent members of the sunflower family.
This week’s mystery plant is also a member of the stonecrop family. It belongs to a group, or genus, that is found naturally in warm parts of the world, especially South Africa and southern Asia. Our mystery plant is a native of Madagascar. It produces fabulous tubular, pink (or red) flowers, which dangle on the tall stem. It is extremely easy to grow (as long as it is not overwatered) outside during the summer, but must be brought indoors before frost, or be given a lot of protection, as it is quite cold-sensitive.
Probably the most interesting thing about this plant involves its peculiar foliage. Each leaf is prominently notched along both edges. Inside each notch is a cluster of cells which eventually will develop into a tiny little plant all on its own, with tiny little leaves, a tiny little stem, and tiny little roots. It’s what you could call a “plantlet”. After a while, and when the little plantlets get big enough, every one of them will fall off (or be knocked off) the leaf on which they started, falling down to the ground below, and starting up an entirely new individual. This is a remarkable example of vegetative reproduction: each plantlet produced is a clone, or copy, of the “parent” from which it came. By the way, this is a really cool plant for kids to grow.
[Answer: “Mother of Thousands,” Kalanchoe (pronounced “kal-an-KO-ee”) daigremontiana.]
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.