Friday, November 9, 2007

Evil Genius (Bryophyllum daigremontianum)

Pretty much all you have to do for this plant is give it reasonably bright light (full sun is best, though it will live through a lot less than that) and not overwater. They're very, very easy. Kind of too easy, actually.

And B. daigremontianum (sometimes Kalanchoe daigremontiana; Bryophyllum appears to be the current taxonomic consensus, though) isn't, like, the bane of my existence or anything, but it's kind of obnoxious. We don't actually plant any of it deliberately, anywhere, and yet it's all over the place. How? Because it is much, much smarter than we are.

This is what it usually looks like:

Just a couple little plants happily mooching off of an unsuspecting cactus. Now, the first thing you might notice here is how damned close these plants are to the cactus's spines. That's because the plant is an evil genius, and has realized that it doesn't need to grow its own spines if it can just get the cactus to defend it. Which it does (the cactus does, I mean.). I do go through the cacti and succulents on a regular basis, picking out the weeds, but with stuff like this, if I don't want to go to the trouble of getting tweezers, I just leave it alone, 'cause it's not worth getting stabbed repeatedly. Sometimes I get stabbed repeatedly even with the tweezers and give up. And if I don't pull it out of the pot because it's too much trouble to do so, then the plant lives to grow another day: it wins.

But this is only the first layer of its diabolical plan, because it's also figured out another trick: it's incredibly brittle. When you go to pull it out of a pot, if a leaf or stem catches on the side of the pot, or on a cactus spine, or even the leaf of another Bryophyllum right next to it, leaves will break off and fall deeper into the pot, where you really can't get them without tweezers, and they will eventually sprout there and grow into new plants within a few months, that will have to be pulled out again.

The detached leaves don't even care that much whether they're in soil or not: the next picture shows some leaves that have sprouted in an empty spot in a plastic tray. Granted, they have a little bit of soil to work with here, because the tray is dirty, 1 but it's still not what you'd call a nice little pot of soil or anything. Not even enough for a quarter-inch layer of soil. And they're growing anyway.

Another thing we can notice from this picture is that there seem to be two different kinds of plant here: one with sharply pointed leaves, and one with rounded leaves. (If you're having trouble seeing it, the two largest plants in the picture are the pointed kind, and the ones in the right top and right bottom corners are rounded.) I think that these are different morphs of the same plant (in which case it's also a master of disguise!), but I haven't bothered to let them grow out to check. I do know for sure that the rounded-leaf type will eventually grow up to develop spots and serrated edges, because I did grow one of those out, by itself, to see what it would do. So if anybody knows for sure that Bryophyllum daigremontianum is (or isn't) capable of changing its appearance like this, let me know. If not, I will be forced to grow out one of each and see what happens. (UPDATE: The other plant, with the pointed leaves, turns out to be Lenophyllum texanum.)

So, okay. It has minions (the cacti it gets to defend it), it hides so that you can never be sure whether you've really gotten it or not, it's a master of disguise. What else? Oh yeah: if you let it grow long enough, the leaves will eventually start growing baby plants on the edges. We don't actually encourage this to happen. When I started working there, there was one ponytail palm (Beaucarnea recurvata) that had two or three hitchhiking B. daigremontianum in the pot with it, that were big enough to produce plantlets, but I'm pretty sure the Bryophyllums in question have since been removed, or the plant itself sold, or something; I haven't seen it lately. So, I don't have original photos to share of this, but it's easy enough to find pictures on-line of this sort of thing (the species ID may not be exact, but the basic method looks the same for all the plants that do this):

What's going on here is actually very interesting, and is covered in excessively jargony detail here, in a post at I'm not sure if we're actually talking about the same plant, because the picture they use for the article doesn't resemble any of the plantlets I see at work. (I think the picture is actually of Bryophyllum tubiflorum, but I am not an expert in Bryophyllum taxonomy, and don't know anyone who is, so I'm just going with my best guesses here. My best guesses tell me somebody got the wrong picture.) The gist of the article is the same for any of the Kalanchoe or Bryophyllum species that reproduce this way, though: these plants have made a sort of deal with the devil. 2 A gene which normally is only used in making seeds has been altered in such a way that it's useless for seed-making. Thanks to the changes, though, this gene can be expressed in leaves. So instead of forming embryonic plants in seeds, it forms embryonic plants in the leaves, skipping the whole pollination-and-seed stage entirely. 3

There are disadvantages: all of the plant's reproduction is now asexual, so there's no gene-shuffling going on at all from one generation to the next. Any pathogen that managed to crack the code and consume the plant would also be able to kill the plantlets, and grand-plantlets, and so on, and would be capable of wiping out all the plants in a given area within days. It's kind of like taking everything you own, putting it in separate rooms to protect it, and then putting the same lock on each of the rooms: yes, it's all separate, it's all protected from anything that can't open the door, but anybody who gets the right key can still come along and take it all. (Sexual species always have the hope that even if 99.999% of the population were wiped out by something, that remaining 0.001% could resist somehow, get together, and breed a new race of resistant organisms. 4 Asexual organisms like Bryophyllum daigremontianum can still change over time, because they still get hit by radioactivity and cosmic rays and ultraviolet light and so forth, so their DNA varies some, but change happens considerably more slowly, for various reasons which are beyond our scope. I can recommend books if you're really interested.5)

The plant might respond, call me stupid if you want, but I'm everywhere, and you aren't. You don't even have the power to make me go away, when you really, really want to. I'll be here long after you're gone. And then – the world will be mine! Then it would laugh maniacally, wait for thunder to crash in the background, and, I don't know, pet a cat or something.


Photo credits:
Baby plants on edge of leaf: CrazyD at the Wikipedia entry for Kalanchoe daigremontiana.
All others: me.

1 Yes, I am ashamed.
2 See? Evil.
3 Though, weirdly enough, it still goes to the trouble of making flowers. I suppose even an evil genius can find time to relax with a hobby occasionally.
4 The name for this happening is "evolution," which you may have heard of.
5The Red Queen, by Matt Ridley, is a good one.


Anonymous said...

I have read of their leaves being pinned to a curtain where they evidently continue to grow.
Also a leaf mailed to someone in an envelope supposedly survives the trip through the postal system, although this may pre-date the automated machines used today.


heatherkat said...

Hey have you ever seen the branches fall off and form roots...? I'm wondering what's going on with my Kalanchoe.

Here's some photos of my plant and it's weirdness

mr_subjunctive said...

Some Kalanchoes will grow roots while they're still attached to the main plant, yes. I have one at home that's doing that now, and there have been some at work that have grown roots on the stems.

I'm not sure why the branches would be falling off in the first place, but it looks pretty normal otherwise.

Ian said...

I think you have more than one variety there. Perhaps the prescence of K. delagoensis, K. tubiflora or even K. serrata would explain the morph. They really only vary by leaf structure in slight ways.
These plants used to be called Bryophyllums (leaf sprouts) & are often considered invasive weeds. Amongst the true Kalanachoes, only a few like K. tomentosa have similar shaped leaves to bryophyllums, though as far as I know that species doesn't sprout plantlets.
Its quite normal for kalanchoes to drop branches & root. Some species really depend upon vegetative propagation. In the environments most succulents originate, seed germination can be an unreliable process.

Anonymous said...

I have lots of Kalanchoe Daigremontiana, we use it to treat cancer since a herbalist from Chile told us that it was very effective.


Jose J said...

I am very interested in any information as to using kalanchoe daigremontiana to treat cancer. can anyone supply anything useful in this respect?

Anonymous said...

I´ve seen this kind of plants in an other Forum.
It had an own Living room, swimming pool and was treaten like an real room-decoration :0•
We have 2 of them, comin´out of the roots of our Beaucarnea recurvata. And I really, really don´t know how to fight them. It derides me :0(
Can you help me?

Anonymous said...

The second 'Morf' of your
Kalanchoe is actually a Sedum texanum (Lenophyllum texanum) and being a copycat is reproducing just the same way. It currently growing in amongst my agaves and it would take more than tweezers to remove them. Think Machete!

mr_subjunctive said...

Aha. Thank you. It's been bugging me, not knowing what the other plant was.

Not bugging me as much as the plant itself does, of course. But nevertheless.

aa said...

Hmm..interesting little plant with a tenacious nature akin to the cockroach. I 'borrowed' some seeds from an outdoor planter at a local restaurant in AZ a few years ago. I have a zeriscape front and back yard and these plants have survived the occaisional AZ freeze, 117 degree summers, overwatering, underwatering, minimal care, no care,no light. They grow ANYWHERE. I agree that they seek out spiney, thorny cactus to move in with for protection. The grow in the cracks/fissures of our dry stacked rock walls, in the cracks of sidewalks and in water. The payoff is in Jan-March when they produce red bell like flowers...which turn into small K.D. plants of their own while still attached to the mom plant..amazing. Their one other use is to help with soil erosion. AA

Anonymous said...

so I got a few plantlets from a bio lab, tossed them in the neighbors sideyard a few years back, and they have TOTALLY taken over. spread 5 feet and they're like a foot tall. they are total evil genius. they will surely take over AZ soon. hehe.

Your Online Avon Rep said...

Hi, I stumbled across your blog while looking to find info on my Kalanchoe. I snatched a baby off a leave from someone elses plant a year or so back. It looks a bit similar to the close up photo you have, but the leaves are solid green. The leaves look a bit like an alligators open jaw with all the babies as teeth. I am finding them a bit hard to grow alone, but they do like company of another type of plant. The babies grow well in all the pots of plants around it. You can see a pic of it on Facebook at: Let me know what you think!

Anonymous said...

I had this plant as a commercial gift one year ago (as a key chain). My fiancé and I were puzzled about its reproduction and these famous "plantlets", and thanx to you now we understand ! We placed it into a window box but removed it because it was colonizng the hole stuff... Now it's alone in its own flowerpot (not so alone, a dozen of "babies" already grew up in it too!). And we were saying the same than you: this plant is maleficent!!

cirrat said...

Hi. I stumbled upon this blog yesterday, when attempting to find out what the heck was that tiny bromeliad I bought (crypthanus, by the way). I was biting my nails not to comment so far, because seriously, I don't remember what I wrote on my blog about one year ago and here we are in the 2007 :-) But the kalanchoe actually does go through the whole pollination process just in case there is another plant nearby with which it could swap genes and do some evolutionary process :-)

Carlyn said...

I'm so glad to have finally found out what this plant is! I've had one for about 25 years - I say "one," but it's now about "a hundred."

My husband was cleaning out an area behind a rack on our deck and plant babies had apparently fallen back there. They are growing full-blooded plants, with their own tiny plantlings on their leaves, in the dirt on an old shingle that had also fallen back there. I also have one growing in a hole in a piece of coral.

*sigh* There is no stopping them. But they do change over time and generations. Some get kind of misshapen leaves, very distorted, almost looking they have birth defects. Too much inbreeding, I guess.

Thanks again for helping me identify this thing, although, I don't know how it helps anything to know what it is. ;) Such is life.

Carlyn said...

I'm going to try to add some pix of the evil genius plants...let's see if I can, shall we?

Here they are hiding amongst the cacti, as pointed out earlier:

Growing on the shingle:

And, growing in a piece of coral, my personal favorite:

mr. P said...

Hi Carlyn,
My Evil Kalanchoe is all green. Would you be interested in trading babies? If so, you can contact me at:
If you can't see my facebook photo,
I can send you a photo separately.
Mr. P

Carlyn said...

Well, clearly I don't know how to do pictures. If anyone ever comes back to this thread, could you 'splain it, please?

Thank you for your kind attention in this matter.


mr_subjunctive said...


I don't think Blogger's commenting system supports embedding photos in comments. I could still see them by copying and pasting the address, though.

mr. P said...

Yes, I saw your pics also!

abudoggie said...

Oh! No pics, I see. Thank you, guys! I'm glad it's not just something dorky I did in posting. ;)

Mr. P, I'd be delighted to send you babies. You can email me an addy at and I'll get them right out. But you'll need to tell me the best way to send them. Damp paper towel? Just dry? I'm guessing they'll have no trouble growing even if I sent them on fire but you may know better. Oooo!! Sharing the Evil!

mr_subjunctive said...


As Anonymous notes in the very first comment of the thread, some Kalanchoe leaves can be thrown in an envelope and mailed and arrive perfectly capable of sprouting new plants. I wouldn't do this with B. daigremontianum, just because obviously you want to give it the best chance you possibly can to survive and stuff, but I bet you could just wrap a couple plants with paper towels and/or plastic bags, throw them in a box, and mail. I wouldn't worry about keeping them moist. Priority Mail only takes 2-4 days, and a drought that length would be a piece of cake for Bryophyllum.

Sarah said...

A student of mine turned in a plant collection project for Honors Bio and in it within a ziplock bag was a cutting from a kalanchoe. It's nickname here is the alligator plant because the mature plants resemble alligator jaws and markings (Coastal MS and LA). Anyway, I simply took it out of the baggie and put it in a spare pot in the classroom. So many students have taken "babies" home off of that plant and it's still doing's diffidently a hardy species, surviving students, a rabbit, a toddler, and a housecat.

Anonymous said...

The plant on the Science Daily link is actually Bryophyllum tubiflorum. There seem to be several species that I don't care enough to tell apart. I had a few varieties years ago that i gave up on because they were too damn brittle to grow into a decent looking specimen. They are a pain to get rid of but you can win (an easier psychological battle in a cold climate where you know they can't really escape)and they have the benefit of not leaving sleeper cells (seeds) to pop up after you think they are gone, although the existence of hybrids shows that they can sex if you make them, they're just too lazy.

~mel said...

I never knew what this plant was called. I only knew it as the Maturnity Plant. Where can you get this plant? Mine died when we had trouble with our furnace and I've never been able to find it to replace it.

mr_subjunctive said...


Well, I can get the plant from a couple of the garden centers in my area, but you probably mean where can you get it, right?

I'd start by checking the plant exchange forums -- people used to offer them fairly regularly at the Garden Web exchange, though that appears to have slowed down quite a bit since I was last checking it. I know there are other forums like that, but don't have any of them bookmarked so I can't tell you where to find them; Google should be able to find some for you, though, with something along the lines of "house plant cuttings exchange forum."

If you try that and still can't find anybody who has some, send me an e-mail (my address is in the blog siderbar; be sure to read the directions) and I can post a request for you: I'm sure at least one of my readers has some. Then I can put the two of you in touch and you can sort out the details between yourselves.

Anonymous said...

Man, I have something along the lines of two dozen of these little bastards growing, had to pick some out of a variegated spider plant, the carpet, the aloe, and anything else that it could latch it's greedy roots on. Fun as hell plant though. Once it starts repopulating like a madman I'm going to help spread it, it commands me to. I figure start with the local college, then to the high schools, get it in whatever churches will take such an evil plant, and maybe jus throw some at random passers-by in the hopes that they too will realize it's power.

Anonymous said...

B. digremontianum Source

Here is a URL for a small pot size, 2.25 in, 21 available, as of 1-3-13, at Almost Eden


smallhousebiggarden said...

Although I've researched ceaselessly online i cannot find any info re: key botanical differences between K.(or B.)daigremontiana and K. (or B. tubiflora.
Some sites use all 4 names interchangeably and seem to indicate they are ONE plant, while others treat them as two DIFFERENT plants. To my eyes, they look different (i have both growing in my yard.) One is greener than the other year round independent of temperature; The other is fuller and more maroon-toned depending on temperature/season.
Although I don't comment often on your blog, I read it often and trust your information as well as instincts. What do you think?

mr_subjunctive said...


I'm going to say they're three plants, on the grounds that that's what Plant List says, and I've decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that Plant List is going to be my authority on such matters. According to PL:

Kalanchoe daigremontiana is an accepted species name.

Kalanchoe tubiflora doesn't exist.

Bryophyllum daigremontianum is an accepted species name.

Bryophyllum tubiflorum is a synonym for B. delagoense.

PL doesn't provide photos, though there are pictures of Bryophyllum delagoense and B. x houghtonii (B. delagoense x B. daigremontianum) here, which might at least make it possible to distinguish between the two of them. Both of those have mottled leaves, green-blue or purplish with darker spots, and the main difference is whether the leaves are cylindrical (delagoense) or lens/boat-shaped (x houghtonii). B. daigremontianum has larger leaves, but I couldn't find any photos of it that I was sure were correctly identified.

Kalanchoe daigremontiana appears to have much less pronounced variegation, usually only on the underside of the leaves, and larger leaves. There's a photo here that looks potentially trustworthy.

The whole situation is kind of a mess, though, and it's going to be a while before I feel comfortable saying that any plant is definitely B. daigremontianum or K. daigremontiana.

Lizzie said...

Hi, I found this blog via another blog while trying to identify what turned out to be asparagus plumosa (after googling various variations on "fuzzy fern"). In my defense, this "4-inch assorted foliage" was only $1.99 at the grocery store, and ish sho fwuffy.

I would like to add that señora kalanchoe daigremontiana, which I know as "mother of thousands," shares something in common with faux-ferns and Diane Downs: beautiful yet deadly. Daigremontiana is poisonous to humans and pests. In its defense, it possesses this creepily chic, almost alien beauty—unlike other weedy decorations (like Chinese privet and Red-tip, which are so déclassé). But I've only been plant-mommy to myriad-mommy for three weeks, and I adopted my daigremontiana from a dear friend who is moving away, so I am biased. (Certainly my appreciation for the asparagus fern should call my taste level into question.)

I'm wondering, though—and maybe you're not the right human to ask this of, but: how closely related are all the daigremontiana in the world? Like, could they potentially all be clones of the one mother of thousands? More importantly, do they have twin telepathy???

mr_subjunctive said...


No idea about the relatedness. I dimly recall reading something that was talking about dandelions, which mainly (exclusively?) self-pollinate, and the takeaway was that all the dandelions in (the world? The U.S.?) could be divided into four distinct populations which were more or less populations of clones.

The problem is that I've just googled to try to find that, and what I was coming up with was sort of implying that dandelions don't divide up neatly like that, but are instead mixtures of different clones which grow together in the same spots. So now I don't know.

I'd be willing to bet that in any particular garden center, all the plants are probably clones of one another, and there's a good chance that any plants in other garden centers nearby are also the same clone, just because places that are near one another are likely to be getting plants from the same supplier. But I don't have any idea how diverse the species is in the world.

As to twin telepathy, I'm sure they must have it. The better to be an evil genius with, and all that.