Thursday, March 6, 2008

Also-Ran (Synadenium grantii)

You know how there are certain plants you see everywhere? I'm talking about the plants that you know are going to be anywhere you go that sells plants, be it a garden center, a big box store, your local supermarket, the neighborhood florist's shop, or wherever. Now, I suppose that the precise list might vary a little, depending on where you are, but around here, it looks something like this:

Philodendron hederaceum
Epipremnum aureum
Dracaena marginata
Spathiphyllum spp.
Syngonium podophyllum

Synadenium grantii1 is not one of those plants. In fact, it's not even easy to find if you're actively looking for it, at least not around here. What those five have in common is that 1) they're easily to produce, 2) they sell well, and 3) they can tolerate less than ideal care for a reasonably long time without falling to pieces. They're not necessarily the cheapest, or the prettiest, or the most durable: there's some tradeoff involved, but the eventual calculation is that every business has to carry them, so they all do.

There's also a longer list of plants which aren't everywhere, but they're still pretty common. Codiaeum variegatum is easy to produce, and easy to sell, though it kind of falls apart indoors in inexperienced hands. Plectranthus verticillatus is amazingly cheap, and can take a lot of abuse, but it's hard to get people interested in it. Zamioculcas zamiifolia is durable and a good seller, but requires a pretty big time investment to produce.

Synadenium grantii isn't on the longer list either, even though it seems like it would naturally fit in. It's a pretty durable plant, and it's extremely easy to produce – I've made two or three new plants from cuttings in a single year, and I wasn't even trying hard: I could have made more than that, if I had wanted. And it's not like my plant was old when I got it; it was just a six-inch cutting, barely even rooted.

I haven't been in a position to know whether it's a strong seller, because we've never offered it at work, and I've only seen it for sale anywhere two times in the last ten years, and in both cases I bought it myself on sight. I think we can all agree that I'm not a typical American tropical plant consumer, so the fact that I bought a couple doesn't necessarily mean anybody else would. But I would think so. They have a nice look to them. Fairly big, broad, yellowy-green leaves, with decorative specks of a contrasting color – easy to grow, easy to keep. So why are they not everywhere? Why are we not sick to death of seeing them?

It turns out that there are other considerations. Like, some plants get very big very quickly. My most recent Synadenium, which I bought last March, tripled its height by May and needed to be cut back. The plant then grew a bit more slowly before an abrupt halt in the winter, but it has put on about six inches in the last month and now needs to be cut back again. This is - don't get me wrong - awesome, but also a bit of a problem: most people don't want to buy a tabletop plant and have it turn into a ceiling-height tree in two years. (A few of us do want that, but we're in the minority.) Outdoors, a plant can supposedly grow 6 or 7 feet in a single growing season, at least in zone 9.

How big can they get? Hard to say. The tallest claim I found was 15-20 feet, but there's disagreement on the maximum height. (The University of Florida, for example, doesn't think they get above 8 feet. This is almost certainly wrong.) It's naturally found in east central Africa, and is apparently a regular tree there, though, so it will outgrow your home, if you let it, and it's not going to take that long to do so. Unless you have very high ceilings, or a machete. So that's one reason.

But there's a much bigger reason than that, which is: it's mean. Like its relatives the Euphorbias, which we've talked about some in the post for Euphorbia trigona, its sap is irritating, can cause temporary blindness and all that good stuff, except more so. We're talking redness, we're talking blisters, we're talking swelling and pain and possibly a little weeping and cursing. And it gets better still, because the reaction isn't necessarily immediate: you may not notice any problems until four or more hours after contact with the sap.

Also like with E. trigona, I've never experienced this problem personally, but then, I take precautions: I try to be near a sink or shower if I'm going to be cutting on the plant,2 I wash my hands and arms when I'm done, and if I see sap on myself before I finish, I stop what I'm doing and wash it off before I go on. This would, admittedly, be impractical if one is cutting a 15-foot tree outside: in that case you probably want to put on some actual covering: long sleeve shirt, long pants, closed-toed shoes, possibly a hat and goggles. This is, I know, a pain, but it's more convenient than temporary blindness and blistering, and you will, almost certainly, get dripped on, if it's a big enough tree.

Supposedly the sap is a Masai home remedy for East Coast fever, which illness sounds like somebody who just can't get enough crabcakes, but is actually a pretty unpleasant-sounding tick-borne disease which primarily affects cattle but can also kill (or at least seriously inconvenience) people. Synadenium grantii sap is said to be applied to the swollen lymph nodes, causing blisters on purpose. The protozoans who cause the disease eventually move into the lymph nodes, so I suppose if enough of the nasty compounds from the Synadenium sap cross the skin and get taken up by the lymph nodes, it sort of makes sense. Still pretty hardcore for a home remedy, or for any remedy.

Also relating to cattle, the same site as above reports that Synadenium grantii has been used in cow sabotage before, which, if you're city folk, stop and ponder the concept of "cow sabotage" for a second:

Thorold (1953) described the sudden development in 33 steers of large oedematous swellings between the brisket and near fore leg. Some also showed lesions between the hind limbs. No animal showed a lesion on the offside. Eight steers died. He believed that the lesions may have been caused maliciously using the latex of Synadenium grantii, a plant common in the nearby countryside.

Indoors, though, not such a big deal. Some paper towels, some soap, a sink nearby, goggles or glasses, and you should be more or less set.3 When propagating, use a clean knife to make the cuts, and let the cuts callus for a day or so before planting cuttings. I have found rooting cuttings to be kind of ridiculously easy: I just treat them like plants that have already rooted, and then suddenly they are already rooted.

But nevertheless. You can see how a plant that has the potential to blind people and sabotage their cows isn't likely to wind up in the grocery store, especially not if it might also grow a foot and a half while it waited to sell. That said, I am an unapologetic fan of this plant, and think more people should be growing it.

The plant comes in two color varieties that I'm aware of, the one I have, which is the appley-green with reddish spots, and the reverse of that, reddish-purple with green spots. I'm not sure if the red version is actually a cultivar, properly speaking, but people name it like one (variously as 'Rubrum,' 'Ruby,' rubrovariegata, or "var. rubrum"). The various names all do seem to refer to the same plant. I've seen the various "rub-" names being applied to the green plant with red spots, too, so make sure you see the plant (or a picture) before you buy, but the care for each is identical.

I used to have the reddish-purple variety, several years ago: I got what was probably a six-inch pot with three plants in it from Wal-Mart, and kept it for a while, but the stems got really tall really quickly, and I wasn't aware that I could cut it back, so when it outgrew the space I had for it, I threw it out. I am, of course, kicking myself for this now, but at the time, there weren't a lot of options. If and when I see another of the red-purple ones, I'll buy it.

Care is relatively simple:

Pests: I haven't had pest problems with mine, though I wouldn't be surprised at all if mealybugs and whiteflies couldn't cause problems, as both pests are common on Synadenium's relatives.
Temperature: Opinions vary on outdoor hardiness, but there seems to be general agreement that this plant is tough enough to take the occasional light freeze without long-term damage (they will drop most or all of their leaves after a light freeze, though, and there may be some damage to stems: it's not really something you want to encourage), so I would be surprised if temperature is ever an issue indoors.
Grooming: Not a huge issue. Plants will drop lots of leaves following a freeze, overwatering, or prolonged underwatering, but this isn't usually going to make such a mess that it's going to take you all day to clean it up. Pruning is useful if you want a plant to branch (supposedly they'll do this on their own, but I haven't seen it), or if you need to keep it underneath the ceiling, but where and how much is kind of up to you.
Feeding: As for any other houseplant.
Light: At least some sun; ideally a lot of sun. This is pretty much non-negotiable.
Water: Plants should get close to completely dry between waterings, especially in the winter. The plant reacts to too much water and not enough water in the same way (the lowest leaves yellow, crinkle up, and drop), so there's a bit of a learning curve at first, though once you've got the hang of it, it's no big deal.
Propagation: Described above.
Humidity: Not really an issue for this plant.

Supposedly, if you want a smaller plant, you can just keep it in a smaller container: if the roots are constricted, the plant will stay a more manageable size. So far, I haven't wanted a manageable plant, so I haven't tried this personally.

I have doubts that this is ever going to be a mainstay of the tropical foliage industry, and probably that's how it should be: it really is potentially a huge, dangerous monster. But, you know, an appealing, vigorous monster, too. Like tribbles. It certainly doesn't make sense that they should be so hard to find.


Photo credits: all me.

1 There are some on-line who say that this plant has been reclassified as a Euphorbia species, E. pseudograntii. This wasn't reported commonly enough that I necessarily believe it just yet, without some confirming evidence, but I wouldn't necessarily be surprised, either, as Synadenium grantii has a lot of Euphorbia-like qualities, and was already classed in the family Euphorbiaceae. Moving the relationship one step closer, and placing it in the Euphorbia genus, isn't really that big of a stretch. A few sources also identify this plant as Synadenium compactum, but it seems to be so well-known as grantii that I don't think I have to take compactum seriously.
2 Cold water seems to slow bleeding more quickly than just letting a cutting sit. Powdered charcoal is supposed to be even better, but it's a lot easier for me to get cold water than it is to get powdered charcoal.
3 (Also clothing. I don't advise taking cuttings of any plant while nude, but it's especially not a good idea with this one.)


Sheila said...

If anyone cares, I can email a very long article about euphorbia poisonings that I got off another message board. I don't know the original source but it's interesting reading, although I kind of lost interest part way through.

Mr. Green Genes said...

Mr. S,

I am being extra thick today- why "Also-Ran"?

Great post this one. Would I be far off the mark in assuming the plant sap is so poisonous because otherwise herbivores would eat it up in its native (presumably, dry) environment?

mr_subjunctive said...

Maybe the term isn't as widespread as I thought? I understand "also-ran" to mean "someone who competed but failed to win or even place in the top few spots." In this case, I'm referring to the fact that Synadenium, despite being relatively easy to produce, easy to care for, and attractive enough to be sellable, nevertheless isn't one of the plants one sees in every store.

mr_subjunctive said...

Oh, and -- yeah, I'd assume that the sap is extra-poisonous because there aren't a lot of other water sources in its native area, so it has to try harder if it's going to discourage animals from eating it.

Mr. Green Genes said...

Thanks Mr. S, see English is not my 1st language and I don't live in the US. Get better!

Matt said...

I purchased a plant from a large greenhouse in my city labeled Synadenium granatum without any instructions or information on it. By searching around online I came across your website and found it incredibly helpful! Thanks a bunch for all the info! My plant is doing very well and I'm sure your instructions will allow me to get it to a nice height with lots of branches. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

I am really interesting in this plant(Synadenium grantii.Do you know anyone can sell me this plant?
Regards Howk

dpeirson said...

I had an African Milk Bush until the freeze this year. I have one little stick with new leaves. My plant had no varigation, all green and was about 6 feet tall. If anyone else has one, I would love to know.

Tom said...

We get these in pretty regularly at the greenhouse I used to work at. They're almost always one of the first plants to sell. Our customers just love them. They grow like weeds even in the dead of winter. Mine got about 2 hours of Minnesota sun in december and still produced beautiful growth with no stretching!

Rameen said...

I just purchased this plant recently. It seems to do well getting very bright sunlight in my room. I knocked off two leave on accident-- the plant is rigid and fleshy, and the leaves seem to pop off readily. I planted them and am waiting for roots. They seem to be as healthy as ever...

The leaves are mostly burgundy with splashes of dark green, with yellow-green on the forming leaves. The main stalk seems to grow a leaf about every 3 days!

I'd like to know more about pruning cutting... I think it will be important to keep the plant compact and shapely so that it can live undisturbed and no one gets hurt.

mr_subjunctive said...


I'll be surprised if you manage to get new plants from the leaves; I don't think this plant works that way. Though stranger things have happened, and I suppose you can't know until you try.

I'm not sure what more I can tell you about pruning. The stems grow straight up. When they get too tall, you cut them. When they're cut, they sprout one or more new growing tips, which then grow straight up.

Rameen said...

The leaves eventually dried up weeks later, with no roots to be seen.

For a while the plant was slowly losing leaves; they were shriveling up and dropping off one at a time. I repotted it (as it was top-heavy) and the soil finally dried. It hadn't dried out since I bought it...
It lost a leaf or two, but since I watered it earlier this week, it seems to have stopped calmed down a bit. The plant leaves in general still aren't as supple-looking as before though.

Can't be too sad about a couple leaves since it was growing so quickly before the weather suddenly cooled off.

Thanks for all the info! I love your blog. It's more or less the only one I read these days!

Anna said...

I too have a thick leaved solid green version of this plant. A funny story about that: I had some very big ones a several years back however I had been told it was Coca (yes as in making cocaine from).
I loved the plant just for the houseplant aspect however it seemed sort of dangerous to have a controlled substance for a houseplant. After a couple years I threw them all away (at night in a dumpster, far from home) in a fit of paranoia.
This was long before the internet was so easy to use. Fast forward to last year, I was clicking along surfing about houseplants and I happened across a picture on a forum of another plant. In the background was a HUGE leggy "Coca" bush. I recognized it immediately and did more research. Badabing Badaboom! African Milkbush!
I went back to the same friend I had got cuttings from before, set him straight on what it really was and got a couple new cuttings again. [It had been his ex-wife that told me the story about being brought to the US in a backpack from Colombia..] Phew! I was so relieved, I had loved this plant! And now I was free to love it again!!! It's grown like a weed as mention above. I had discovered by trial & error how to make it huge in the house, back when we still had a case of mistaken identity. It's in my top 3 favorite house plants of all time. Such a very long story to share. I hope it brings a smile to someone's day.

Simpler Thomas said...

I was offered a cutting of this plant, which I was told was COCA! Since I had tried coca tea with a Peruvian friend I was eager to have my own plant. A few months ago I took some leaves and applied some of the latex (duh, why didn't I check to see if coca exuded latex?) to my gums. Needless to say, I was burning and prickling for several days. It was painful and uncomfortable to say the least, but I am still here... Here is the article in Erowid which debunks the 'scam'. Since there are different varieties of Coca, I just thought mine was an atypical one. Word to the wise: always research a plant or mushroom before you put it near your mouth!

Anonymous said...

i have just come a cross this plant in the cactus house at Glasgow botanic gardens. Scotland UK. never heard of it before but as happens when i see a beautiful blonde women, i fell instantly in love. people a cross America who think they have problems sourcing desirable clorophyll haven't been to Scotland. It is a house plant desert, apart from the right bleding common. I am amazed what you can get in America , Ok sometimes you have to pay courier service but at least the plant of your choice is out there somewhere. keep on growing the mad plants it gives por sods like me plenty to drool over. plant porn rocks! last comment . This blog is awesome.

sarcozona said...

Synadenium grantii is actually a synonym for Euphorbia umbellata, just so people searching with that name can find this awesome post on this awesome plant!

Anonymous said...

In Peru it's known as Planta de la vida and it's used medicinally

Diane Peirson said...

I had a large one that stayed outdoors,it came with my house, left behind,it would drop leaves in winter and come back in spring an unusual winter freeze killed it and all the cuttings I had given away.. I found a small one, but can't get it to branch.

BasiaK said...

Apart from powdered charcoal, you may use ground cinnamon on any plant wounds. It has got antibacterial properties and helps to dry any sap. And it is VERY easy to obtain, usually all it takes is a look in the kitchen cupboard! :)

Diane Peirson said...

I still have the small plant I found last year, but it won't branch, plus I really want another plant. Any suggestions?

mr_subjunctive said...

Diane Peirson:

Taking a cutting may or may not solve one problem (the branching), but it should solve the second (wanting more plants).

I no longer have Synadenium grantii, because they contracted a fungus, along with several other members of the Euphorbiaceae, and after trying to get the fungus under control for a few years (!), I finally gave up in January. However, at least a third of the time when I took a cutting, the original plant sprouted more than one growing tip to replace the one I cut off. So if it doesn't branch the first time, keep trying: it should get there eventually.

Lynne said...

I have this plant, and only tonight did I learn its name, on a video on youtube by Laura Eubanks. She was demonstrating how to clean up a garden patch in her San Diego succulent garden. Once I learned its name I searched for it and found this great blog! Thank you for all the great information. I have had my Synadenium for several years, and yes, it keeps outgrowing its pot and I have been wondering what to do with it. I think it also contracted a fungus. It had rough patches on its stem, rather unsightly, and the leaves were getting spotty. I put it outside in semi-shade (I live in Northern California, on the coast), and today I took some clean cuttings and threw away the parent plant in the compost (not compost for the vegetable garden). Tomorrow I will put the 5 stems in soil, and hopefully the fungus or whatever won't come back. I'll probably be giving away 4 of the plants. I am considering planting it outside, as you did say it can tolerate light freezes. Thanks again!

Abhimanyu Veer said...

I loved reading the posts, i feel the same way, but not for this plant :P

I especially loved Anna' story. Plants and 'plant affairs' go together when emotional and humane people make plants their hobby. Waiting for a plant, living with a plant, growing up with one species, being gifted one: anything can start of a long and rewarding 'plant affair' where the plant becomes like a person, and you enjoy their company as much if not more than the people you know. I am getting a Monstera obliqua that i have been looking for, for a decade in my area, and this post reminded me that tomorrow is my lucky day.

Ballack Gacunji said...

Send it to me please am doing research on it.

mr_subjunctive said...

Ballack Gacunji:

Send what to you? The plant? I no longer have it; see four comments up, in my response to Diane Pierson.

Bernie said...

So I want to cut mine back, but I'm afraid. I've had it about 12-14 years, and keep it in my bathroom, next to a skylight. It came in a 4-inch pot, and I placed that in a 4-1/4-inch plastic container to keep the water in (hint, no drainage, when I water it, it stays wet until it dries out, and I let it get really dry before I panic and water it again; it seems to be quite satisfied with the arrangement). It has grown a bit taller as the comments above would suggest. The main stem is now about 6-7 feet long, but looped around and spindly (it's indoors) and tied to a towel bar to keep it up. At about the 2-1/2-foot mark, it grew a side stem perpendicular to the main stem, and then another perpendicular side stem a ways out on that. It's becoming inconvenient in my small bathroom, but I really can't bring myself to evict it after such long tenancy. I want to know exactly how ans where I clip it to make it back into that cute little plant that it once was. Do I just arbitrarily pick convenient points along the stem and nip it? Do I nip it just before or just after leaf clusters? Can I do it in such a way that if I accidentally kill most of it, that some is left. Someone in my neighborhood used to have them (lots of them in his east-facing front yard - this San Diego, so such things are possible), and he said to simply nip them, put them in some water to root, and stick them in the ground).

Any advice?

mr_subjunctive said...


Do I just arbitrarily pick convenient points along the stem and nip it?

Pretty much, yeah.

Do I nip it just before or just after leaf clusters?

I usually do it just above the nodes (point where a leaf attaches to the main stem), but I'm not sure I have any particular reason for doing that. It leaves less of a stump hanging above the highest leaf, is all. Also I think most plants will produce new growing tips from just above the leaf nodes, though I couldn't swear to it.

Can I do it in such a way that if I accidentally kill most of it, that some is left.

This will be the case pretty much any way you do it. If you leave a stump, it'll start new growing tips. The plant will use a lot less water for a while, so you may have to change how and when you water, but they're pretty weedy plants.

Someone in my neighborhood used to have them (lots of them in his east-facing front yard - this San Diego, so such things are possible), and he said to simply nip them, put them in some water to root, and stick them in the ground).

Yep. I didn't even bother with the water-rooting part, just stuck the pieces in soil in a smallish pot (usually 4-inch), and treated the plant as if it already had roots.

Maggie Mason said...

Thanks for the blog; I like your writing style. I bought this beautiful plant (the "rubra" variety) from a local nursery. The owners had only one, knew nothing about it, and said they thought it was a member of the rubber tree (ficus) family. I left it in its original 2 gallon pot outside for about a year and totally neglected it by not watering it (I live in Southern California). It lost all its leaves except the growing tips. On a hunch, I cut them all and rooted them, including several 6" stick segments, and had almost immediate success. The original plant branched and the whole family is now thriving outdoors, in the ground. I was in love with this plant and had no idea what it was, but I was propagating it like crazy and giving plants to friends.

Then recently, I found a beautiful specimen in Home Depot, of all places. I bought it immediately and of course, now know the name. I'm growing three big clusters against a yellow garage wall, and they are striking. I want them to get tall, and I'm not afraid of the sap.

My only question is, what are the crispy white spots it occasionally gets on a few leaves? I think I read something somewhere about this being caused by overhead watering, and I can't find the reference now, but found this blog while looking around--yay! It isn't a big problem, but I'd like to know.

mr_subjunctive said...

Maggie Mason:

White spots like dead patches? Could be mechanical damage, sunburn, or cold damage. I left mine out too late one year, and then a bunch of irregularly-shaped tan spots appeared on the more exposed parts of the leaves. Edema might also be a possibility, especially if the spots appear when the ground is wet, and following cool, humid weather.

I can't think of any way that overhead watering would cause this, though overhead watering could encourage fungus to form some non-crispy, fuzzy, white patches on some leaves.

Nils Gr√łngaard said...

Somatic mutation from red to green

Some years ago I got a tiny plant from the botanical garden in Copenhagen, Denmark. Since then it's been left pretty much to itself in my kitchen just getting water, a bit of coffee grounds and once a larger container. I've been ill part of the time and too busy all along so it really hasn't seen much care. It long since reached the ceiling, branching multiply in an apparent attempt to circumvent this obstacle. In addition, it seems to have contracted some bug as evidenced by many drying and wrinkled leaves, particularly near the shoot tips. Nonetheless, the plant does seem quite vital and so I've long wanted to propagate it (and of course get rid of the said bug), which is how I ended up on this page.

Interestingly, a somatic mutation appears to have occurred in one branch whose leaves are predominantly green with some red mottling (say, 20-40% red), both sides being similar. This is in contrast to all the other leaves which are uniformly red on the lower side (or at least nearly so, some leaves do have smaller mottled green wedges), while the upper side is red with a bit of green mottling (some 10-20% green).

Anonymous said...

We all know the white sap from various Euphorbia is supposed to be toxic, and many of us have had uneventful run ins with it. This sap is no joke and definitely not like the others! My dog was frantically trying to get at a squirrel that was running along the top of our fence. He trampled the plant and the sap started dripping down from the snapped branches. I don't even think it had direct contact with his skin due to his heavy double coat. Nonetheless, the skin directly beneath the sap became bright red and hot to the touch. It looked like a fresh burn from a frying pan but never blistered up. I ended up having to snip his fur off because I couldn't wash it all out. This variety was mostly maroon with a touch of lime green mottling.