Ledebouria socialis really is kind of a sociable plant, though I don't mean this in quite the same way the scientific name does. The idea behind the scientific name is to underline the fact that this plant is a profuse offsetter; a single bulb can produce a good seven or eight daughter bulbs more or less overnight (in my experience, usually in the spring, after a very long spell of doing nothing at all), which is fairly impressive work for a bulb about the size of your thumb. Then all the little bulbs hang out together for some period, talking about whatever it is that plants talk about, until such time as someone or something separates them.
But there's more to it than just that. Many of the sites that I found talking about this plant mentioned in there that this is seen as more of an oddity than a proper plant, the sort of thing that might appeal to a collector or a hard-core enthusiast, but not the casual houseplant buyer so much. I don't know whether this is true or not, but it does kind of make sense; they may be unusual, but they're also small, and easily overlooked unless you're looking for something new.
I picture a secret cabal of houseplant enthusiasts setting little pots of Ledebouria around their homes and workplaces as a shibboleth to identify other houseplant enthusiasts. Anybody who comments favorably on the plant would automatically be, in this fantasy, One Of Us, and would be whisked away to a secret houseplant enthusiast facility, where they would be shown the secret handshake and given a few Ledebouria bulbs of their own before being returned to their homes. Or something like that.
Ledebouria spp. are also grown outdoors, in places with milder winters, though they apparently don't do that well in the U.S. (They're supposed to be hardy for zones 9 and 10, though some sites go further and say 8 to 10. The problem is that they need dry winters, which don't happen often in the southeast U.S., and so bulbs planted into the ground there tend to rot. In the southwest, the problem is more likely the intense sun and heat: they're tougher plants than they appear, but the leaves are fairly thin, and I expect probably cook in hot conditions. Though maybe not: Aiyana apparently made it work last August, in Arizona. Maybe they're more common in the U.S. than I think.). The plant is originally from South Africa, like so many other low-maintenance houseplants I've covered.
Ledebouria can also get surprisingly old, for such a small plant. I ran across this comment at davesgarden.com (scroll down to CherryUSA's comment):
Our family has one of these that is over 100 years old. For Kansas, USA, women to have an exotic plant like this must have been delightful. It was in my great-grandmother's household. When my grandmother came on a train to the eastern plains of Colorado, USA, to join her homsteading husband living in a sod house, yes a "soddy," she brought this plant on her lap. It grew all those years, it moved to Denver, CO, where it resided until 2001 when my mother died. It now is in Erie, CO, and part of it is being separated into 14 small plants to give to relatives this Christmas. I don't remember it ever blooming, but it could have. We have protected this plant a long time. Ours is obviously a rather pure version, and the leaves are thinner and longer. All else is the same. It has suffered 3 months without water (mom's health was deteriorating and I didn't realize it wasn't getting watered); too much sun in a south window, too much cold too close to the window and other assorted disasters, like being dropped and the entire pot exploding. Frankly this plant must be bullit proof for us to keep it alive this long! I may post a picture later, the part I have is not the best, the big one is with my son, daughter-in-law and my granddaughter who is the sixth generation to take care of it. MERRY CHRISTMAS
[all errors sic]
I find the image of the woman riding a train with a Ledebouria in her lap charming.2 I rode a train with a box turtle in a gym bag once, but that's not so much charming as eccentric, possibly veering dangerously close to weird.3,4
If you leave a clump to its own devices, repotting when necessary but not dividing at all, it'll persist, though the end result looks weird. It's hard to describe; I've only seen it once, at a consignment store here, and I didn't see it for very long then. My recollection is that it looked like the stems had just continued to get longer and longer, even though the older leaves were still falling off as fast as new ones were growing. So the end result was of a mound of bulbs, with mostly-naked stems bouncing off the mound in various directions. It might sound interesting, but really it just looked kind of exhausted. I suppose I don't actually know that it had been getting good care, only that it was clearly old. But it did make me wonder: Oh. Are mine going to look like that later?
The part about older leaves falling off as quickly as new ones grow seems to be typical for plants kept indoors. In the greenhouse, they'll stay pretty compact, but at home, it's unusual for a bulb to have more than three leaves at a time. There's a bit of a trade-off, though, since the color is much better on indoor plants: the ones in the greenhouse always look slightly washed-out. I'm not positive that this isn't because they're of different species, but for various reasons I think it's the same plant, getting differing care.
Ledebouria socialis has relatively few real demands: it's not a slob, it doesn't eat a lot, it doesn't mind if you miss some waterings here and there, it has no temperature requirements that are likely to cause a problem indoors, it's extremely easy to propagate (by division of the bulbs, at any time of year), and it doesn't mind low humidity. So all of those are good things.
Pests are a little bit of a problem: I hadn't thought that pests would be much of an issue with Ledebouria, since I've yet to see any on one, but then I read a post somewhere on-line where someone was saying that they'd lost their plant to spider mites. So they can be hit by spider mites, at least. I don't lose sleep worrying about it, though: the plants at home and at work have both been in the middle of raging spider mite infestations without having any detectable problems.
Water and light are the only real issues here. Ledebouria can be flexible about water at some times of the year, but too much can be very bad. They don't need much anyway, but one should be especially careful in fall and winter, when they go dormant. If planted in a very fast (well-draining) soil, this will be less of an issue. I water mine when the soil is totally dry, and that's worked fine; I suspect I could water more frequently than that in spring and summer, but don't see the need to experiment.
And while we're talking about water and soil: don't plant the bulbs below the ground. They'll rot. One can't organize a community when one can't see the community, after all.
Light needs to be bright, though there's some confusion about how bright. My own plants are front and center in a south window, and seem to be perfectly happy with that. There are, however, a number of warnings on-line about putting them in too intense of a position, so maybe I should pull mine back in a little. (The spot is on a shelf just a few inches below another shelf, so they don't get full full sun; a lot gets blocked by the plants above them. But still.) I don't know how dim one could go before it had problems; I tend to think bright indirect light is probably the minimum requirement, but I haven't tested this.
Aside from those few issues, this is a really uncomplicated plant. They'll bloom in winter, though I've not been overly impressed by the blooms I've seen at work --
-- there are more impressive pictures on-line, though, so perhaps the work plants were just unhappy.
Propagation is insanely simple. Just pull it out of the pot, break off a bulb, and set the new bulb on some soil: it'll get where it needs to go. I bought one plant in April 2007 and divided it right away, into one clump and two solo bulbs. There was no significant offsetting until about March 2008; whether that's because offsetting is a seasonal thing or because that's just how long it took them to recover, I'm not sure.
There's at least one cultivar of L. socialis: Asiatica Nursery has a variety they call 'Pinkie,' which has a pink stripe along each edge of the leaves. There are also a few other species which are also grown; the one I find the most appealing personally is L. cooperi, which has striped leaves instead of spotted ones, and L. ex barberton is also cool, if less describable. I don't know whether care for these other varieties would be as easy; I've never grown them, or known anyone who's grown them, or even seen them in person.
Finally. Ledebouria socialis has at least been introduced to the Galapagos Islands, which I suppose some introductions are probably inevitable but it's sad to see it happen in the Galapagos. (They're not especially attractive places for human settlement, and they're isolated, so the possibilities for studying the native species, and their interrelationships, is about as pure as you're going to get. Jonathan Weiner has written a wonderful book about a couple who have been doing just that with the native finches, called The Beak of the Finch, which I enthusiastically recommend.) I haven't seen any mention of Ledebouria spp. causing any problems, on the Galapagos or anywhere else, but invasives are sort of automatically a problem, in that any space occupied by an invasive is space that's not being occupied by a native, which means fewer available resources for the natives, or at least different resources.6
I don't blame the Ledebouria. No doubt they're just trying to network.
Photo credits: all my own.
1 I'm guessing plants mostly talk to one another about the weather. Maybe once in a while they might tell one another scary cow stories or something.
2 Actually, I tend to find any historical plant kind of charming. Schlumbergeras that were passed down four generations, and that sort of thing. Not sure I could explain why.
3 It was especially weird when the turtle got out of the bag and started crawling around the car. I'd left the bag open for air, and the turtle was in a box in the bag, 'cause like most animals they do poop, but the turtle was apparently stronger than the box was, so I take a nap for a bit and the next thing I know, somebody with a kind of bemused expression is asking me if this is my turtle. Oh. Yeaaaaah . . . that's mine. Sorry.
4 (I was told once, by a high school English teacher, that I was "weird, but likeable." As best as I recall, my response was something like "Oh! That's what I aim for!")
5 (What? Where do you put your soil?)
6 City dwellers and farmers can, perhaps, be forgiven for not seeing the problem, since there's no room inside city limits, or on a farm, that's useful for native species. No bigger invasive species than Homo sapiens, after all. I'm not making any judgments; regular readers are already aware that nobody's more susceptible to the allure of a sexy new houseplant than I am, and last I checked, there weren't very many species of plant native to my apartment. Also there's the whole deal of a lot of people having to starve to death if all the invasives disappeared. But we don't do what we do without consequences to some species, somewhere, at some point in time. Everything else being equal, we'd do well, I think, to tread lightly. Though you'll get my air conditioner when you pry it from my (extremely) cold, dead hands.