I bought my first Zamioculcas zamiifolia in December 2006, and then waited for it to grow a new leaf. Or drop a leaf. Anything at all, I would have been happy with. And it just sat there. I moved it to brighter light, exhorted it to do something, dropped it on my own head,1 all in vain. The plant made me wait for thirteen months before showing any signs of life at all, and then, it did nothing more exciting than grow a single leaf.
I also, a few months after I bought it, took some leaflets off the plant to propagate new plants, since I'd heard that they did that, and that also took a ridiculous amount of time to happen -- like nine months, I think. Some of them from that batch, I'm still waiting on, actually.
So when I started thinking about what "person" to use for this plant, stoner was my brain's nearly-immediate answer. I wave my arms, I stomp and shout and beg the plant to move, and the plant squints at me through bloodshot eyes and says, very slowly and groggily, "Whoa. Dude. You just, like, pick up your roots and go from location to location. That's so, wow."2
So if you're not a patient person, you might want to skip this plant. We did eventually negotiate an agreement: it's now growing somewhat regularly, at a steady, if not blurry, pace, but that's taken a lot of time and not a little experimentation. So don't say I didn't warn you.
This has become a popular plant in recent years (though the species has been known to science for over a century, it didn't really enter the horticultural industry until around ten to fifteen years ago) because it's unbelievably tolerant of a wide range of conditions. They will allow you to forget to water for months at a time; they'll put up with dark conditions that would make a Sansevieria trifasciata recoil in terror, they're okay with no humidity and are more or less pest-free, and so this has been marketed as the plant to show to people who don't know what they're doing, who have never had plants before, who aren't home much, etc. You'll find them under a bunch of different names, some more accurate than others: eternity plant, ZZ plant, fat boy, aroid palm, arum fern, money plant, zu zu plant, zanzibar gem, timbuktu tree,3 and cardboard palm being the ones I ran across in the researching. Around here, they mostly go by "ZZ plant," and I regard "money plant" and "cardboard palm" as referring to entirely different species. (This might be a good moment for me to re-mention my abiding frustration with, and hatred for, common names.)
And it's not that they aren't really easy, tolerant plants: I tell customers from time to time that if we have any plant that you could keep in a closet for six months of the year, this would be the plant. I expect that you probably really could do that, and the plant would remain technically alive, though not very happy. But it's not quite that simple.4
Because, see, the problem with keeping it in the dark and never watering it is, it kind of needs light and water in order to grow. No light and water, no growth. As in, no growth for thirteen months. You see where I'm headed with this.
So it wasn't that my plant was being particularly unreasonable; it's that I was abusing it, unknowingly, having been told repeatedly that it could handle anything at all and still grow. That turns out to be only half-right: it can handle anything at all.5 If you want it to grow, though, well, that's a whole different deal.
The business end of the plant is the tuber: this is where the leaves and roots come from. The tuber also stores water for the plant, which (along with other adaptations, like thick, waxy leaves and low rates of transpiration) is why it's able to go months at a time without water. Tubers are more or less potatoey, as you would expect: brownish, irregularly shaped, watery. I assume they're also toxic, though it turns out to be difficult to track down any hard information on how toxic, or even to find an account of anyone being harmed by one. Still, they're in the Araceae, like Dieffenbachia, so odds are. Above ground, an average leaf has a thick, slightly bulbous stalk, with maybe 10-20 leaflets on it. Individual leaflets are about one to three inches long, and about half as wide. The difference between leaf and leaflet may seem a bit academic, but it's important later.
So on to the care instructions.
Light: Zamioculcas will remain alive with almost no light at all; filtered sun seems to be preferable for growing. (I tried bright indirect at one point, and that didn't really help: only once I gave it some actual sun did we make progress. The cause-effect relationship there is a little questionable, but that's how it worked for me.) I suspect that they could probably take full sun if they had to - the plants at work are currently pretty close to this, though the greenhouse roof does filter the light somewhat - though nobody actually advises this and the process of adapting to it might be ugly.
Water: The big killer indoors tends to be rot due to overwatering. This isn't because the plant doesn't need a lot of water; it's because it won't use the water if it's not getting any light, and people don't ordinarily give it much light. If it's got a reasonable amount of light, though, you're going to have to match that with a fair amount of water, and this is particularly the case in the late summer until early winter, when they seem to be most inclined to grow if they're going to grow.6 (It also tends to be the case that people leave it to stand in water,7 or plant it in heavy, peaty soils that hold water too long. You really, really, really need to put this plant in soil that will drain quickly, regardless of how much light and water it's getting.)
Humidity: Doesn't seem to matter.
Temperature: At least 60ºF (16ºC) at all times; 70-85ºF (21-29ºC) is alleged ideal.
Pests: I've never seen any on my plant; I couldn't find any evidence on-line that anybody else has ever had any pest problems with Zamioculcas either. Which, stop and marvel at the concept for a second.
Grooming: In order to need grooming, it would have to do something, so this is very rare. You may occasionally need to move plants up to a larger container: the tubers will grow fast enough under good conditions that they can distort or break a plastic pot. Sometimes new plants will be potted in heavy, wet, peaty soil that should be discarded and replaced with something faster, though that's not grooming exactly. Leaves are naturally really shiny; leaf-shiner is not recommended, and you should smack any salesperson who tries to get you to buy some.8
Feeding: As best as I can tell, they're not big feeders (you don't need fertilizer for growth you're not growing), though unless someone tells me otherwise I'm going to assume that one should still feed when active growth is happening, since that's how it usually works.
Propagation is an interesting enough matter that I'm going to give it a couple paragraphs of its own later on.
I couldn't find much information about the plant in the wild; at least one source told me that the plant is from Zanzibar and Tanzania, neglecting to mention that Zanzibar is Tanzania, at least sorta.9 And the range is, in any case, a bit wider than that, extending from Kenya and Tanzania south along the coast through Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. But so we're talking about the middle and southern section of Africa's east coast, an area which I'm told has fairly pronounced wet and dry seasons, which goes a long way toward explaining why the plant would need a lot of water to grow and yet still be prone to rotting out at the drop of a hat.
Zamioculcas is also what is called a (vocabulary word alert!) monotypic genus, which just means that there's only one species in the genus: there's no Zamioculcas polychroma or Zamioculcas trichophyllum or Zamioculcas infernalis or anything like that.10 Just zamiifolia.
The Wikipedia entry currently contains some really questionable stuff:
The leaves of the plant have been used by "sjamans" in the jungles of Ghana to relieve severe stomach ache. When consumed in large quantities it can be deadly. However, when cultivated with coffee for years, the plant can obtain heavy psychedelic effects, which are known by the sjamans in Ghana. This marvel of nature has also been used to relieve severe pains; however, the exact ingredients of the mix are not known outside the tribal structure of Ghana.
I did not see this confirmed, or even referred to, anywhere else. No reference for it was provided at Wikipedia, either. Also Ghana is all the way across the continent, on the west coast of Africa, which isn't part of the natural range of the plant. No reason why people in Ghana couldn't have brought the plant to them, one way or another (leaflets would travel well, I'm sure), but all the same, I call bullshit. I think that the author was either pulling our collective leg or had the plant confused with something else.11
Now propagation. There are a few different ways to propagate Zamioculcas, and they're all slow. The most obvious one is also the fastest: most plants sold contain multiple tubers, which can be divided into individual pots. This isn't done all that terribly often, because, among other things, individually-potted tubers aren't all that exciting to look at and don't make for a very full-looking plant. At least if you have three tubers in a pot, you're tripling your chances of seeing something happen. But still, division can be done. If you choose to divide your plant, handle the tubers carefully: they're not necessarily all that delicate, but any injury can leave an opening for rot to get in, and rot is the beginning of the end, so don't go digging into the soil with knives and stuff.
The slower methods are to grow baby Zamioculcas from leaves or leaflets. Entire leaves, with the stalk and everything down to the point where it meets the tuber, can be rooted in water, and will grow, eventually developing a tuber of their own, though as you may have guessed, this is a slow process. I assume that leaves would also root in soil, given enough time, though I don't think I've actually seen anybody recommend this: everybody who talks about rooting entire leaves does it in water, for some reason.
One can also propagate the plant from individual leaflets. You need a leaflet that's healthy (i.e., no fair pulling one off 'cause it's going yellow and expecting to get another plant out of it - though you might), but otherwise it seems not to matter a whole lot: basically what you do is, you plant the leaflet more or less vertically in some soil, water the soil occasionally, and wait until it does something.
Like I said, my fastest leaflet propagation took about nine months, and there are six leaves from that batch that I'm still waiting on (we're at seventeen months and counting for those ones). So this requires a certain amount of patience, but the silver lining is that it doesn't require any particular skill: you just stick the leaflet in soil, water occasionally, and sooner or later there are babies. I suspect the process can be sped up a little bit by placing the leaflets in a bright, warm spot, though I don't do that with mine so much because all such spots are either already occupied by something or are so difficult to get to that I'm afraid I'd forget about them and never water them.
If the leaflet dies while you're trying to propagate it, and turns brown and dries up and the whole deal, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's a lost cause. If the leaf formed a tuber (which they will, at the bottom of the leaflet, where it used to connect to the central stalk of the leaf), the tuber will eventually get it together to send up a shoot, whether there's a leaf to supply the tuber with energy or not. How does this work? I don't know. Magic, apparently.
It's said to be bad to pull leaflets out of the soil to check on them while they're forming tubers and roots and stuff. I've done it myself, and still gotten plants, so if you've done it without knowing you're not supposed to, or if your cat (or husband) knocked the tray of leaflets you were trying to start onto the floor, there's still hope. But do keep the fiddling with them to a minimum. Either they'll do what they're supposed to do, or they won't, and breaking delicate early roots isn't going to improve your chances either way. I take a softer line on this than some people, because, you know, we're all scientists here,12 and it's important sometimes to observe things directly and see what's going on. So if you want to look at the developing tubers, by all means look. But maybe only look at one of them, instead of the whole trayful.
Zamioculcas zamiifolia, because it takes a longer time to reach sellable size than many tropicals, is often more expensive than other tropical plants of the same size. (I've previously noted that Rhapis excelsa and Aspidistra lurida tend to be the same way.) For a while, there, too, they were also somewhat difficult to find, though I think that's not so much the case anymore. I mean, we've had some continuously, or nearly-continuously, since I started work in the greenhouse, and I've seen them (less consistently) at the Lowe's in town too. Not so much at any of the other competition in Iowa City, but us and Lowe's at least. They should continue to get easier to find and less expensive as time goes on.
A few months ago, I ran into an article talking about a Zamioculcas cultivar, which is the only one I've heard of to date. It was called 'Zamicro,' and the selling point there is just that 'Zamicro' has a smaller habit than the species. It's also probably very hard to find - the cultivar was only "launched" in August 2007, according to the article, and as of last January only about 30,000 plants had been sold worldwide. I'd rather have a bigger Zamioculcas than a smaller one, anyway. Variegated would also work for me. But the plant really can't be rushed into making new cultivars any more than it can be rushed into growing or propagating or anything else. That's just how it is.
Overall, I'm positive about my experience with Zamioculcas, especially now that some propagation has begun and it's behaving more like it was supposed to. And it's not hard to take care of, and I almost feel obligated to be a fan of any plant that's as pest-resistant as this one seems to be. At the same time, whether I'd recommend it to you, or a customer, depends sort of on what you want from it. If you need a plant to sit in the corner and be pretty and take care of itself without needing a lot of input from you, or if you want a plant for a gift and you don't know where the recipient might place it or what they might do with it, this is probably as good a choice as any. A lot of beginning plant-growers, though, are looking for something a little more . . . responsive. Not that a beginner needs something that's going to drop a ton of leaves every time it gets dry, but just, you know, something that gives a little positive feedback when it's being treated well. Zamioculcas zamiifolia isn't that kind of plant. It's more the kind of plant that's sitting quietly in the corner, staring intently at the TV, wondering if there are any Doritos in the kitchen and whether it's worth it to get up to check. Nothing wrong with that, but it's not likely to get anybody all fired up about houseplants.
For further reading, Zamioculcas zamiifolia posts from affiliated blogs:
Mr. Brown Thumb
Photo credits: mine, except for the map, and I didn't record the source of the map.
1 Which was accidental, but still -- if I'd thought it would help, I would have done it on purpose.
2 I picture Brad Pitt, in his bit part in True Romance. (Video here.) Your imaginative casting may vary.
3 Amazingly, both parts of "Timbuktu tree" are wrong: it's not from Timbuktu, or anywhere close to Timbuktu, and it's not a tree. I should start making a list of common names where every word is wrong. I know there are others.
4 (Is it ever?)
5 Or, almost anything.
6 I don't know whether this is how it's "supposed to" work. Dormant periods don't always happen indoors at the same times that they would happen outdoors, and it's also not out of the question that maybe the official sources (which mostly say dormancy happens during the winter) are making shit up as they go, and have never actually tried keeping one of these in normal home conditions. All I know is, I've been told by more than one experienced houseplant grower that Zamioculcas tends to start growing in about September, if it's going to grow at all that year. The plants in the greenhouse at work never actually stop growing, exactly, but there does seem to be a bit of a push above and beyond the usual growth that happens between about August and December.
7 If I could change one thing about the way people take care of plants, I would change the way people think about watering. I'm not sure who to blame, but the practice seems to be that people put a small amount of water into a pot every few days, so that the pot is never flushed out and excess water is never dumped. There are some plants that might do well with this, depending on how much water and how often - Saintpaulias, maybe, or a lot of ferns - and if you're growing plants in a very warm, bright, humid location, then that can work out, too. But most indoor plants need something very different: run lots of water through the soil at once, let it drain, dump the leftover, and then give the plant a period of drying out before hitting it again with another large volume of water. This keeps fertilizer or minerals from the water from building up, and it also eliminates the plants having to stand in water, which is a leading cause of premature houseplant death. I realize that it's a lot more convenient not to have to move the plant with every watering, especially if it's a large plant. But if you're constantly bringing home new plants from the store 'cause you killed your last one, how much plant-carrying are you really saving yourself? And anyway -- do you want the plant to live, or don't you?
8 In particular, you should smack salespeople who try to get you to buy leaf shiner for Zamioculcas, because if there was ever a plant that didn't need leaf shiner, it would be this one. But also you should assault salespeople who push leaf shiner for any purpose, because it's not good for the plant. Or the air. Or your decor (unless you're putting together a look that mandates that everything be really really shiny). There is one situation in which I approve of leaf shiner, which is, it's the quickest (and actually most effective, too) way to make that gray pesticide / fertilizer / hard water spots grime invisible. It's not permanent, and it's still bad for the plant (though it doesn't actually take a lot of spray: a lot of florists seem to overdo it, but it can be applied so that you don't really notice it's there), but it's a lot easier and faster than trying to wipe down each individual leaf with vinegar or milk or soapy water or whatever your particular solution is.
9 (Zanzibar became independent of Great Britain in 1963, after which it merged with another former British colony, the likewise newly independent republic of Tanganyika, and the two were collectively named Tanzania, a contraction of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Everything's pretty much been downhill since then, I gather, especially for gays and lesbians: Tanzania criminalized gay and lesbian sex in 2004. So the husband and I won't be looking for Zamioculcas in its native habitat anytime soon. This is kind of ironic or something, since arguably the most famous thing to come out of Tanzania was Freddy Mercury, lead singer of the rock band Queen, and if you're surprised by this, join the club. I had no idea. In my defense, I'm also not really a fan of Queen, so I had no particular reason to know.)
10 The made-up names would translate as "many-colored Zamioculcas," "hair-leafed Zamioculcas," and "Zamioculcas from hell." I bet that last one would be pretty awesome.
11 It's worth noting also that Coffea arabica, also, is native to Africa's east coast, and so we're asked to believe that two species were imported across the continent, presumably long enough ago (i.e. before modern transportation) to be integrated into the tribal traditions of the native Ghanaians, and that the Ghanaians noticed that the Zamioculcas zamiifolia, which is poisonous and which they would not ordinarily be eating or chewing, produced psychedelic effects when eaten or chewed, and that nobody in, say, Kenya (closer to the native habitats of both species) had ever noticed this first and made it part of their own tribal traditions, and that this only happens when the two plants are grown together. While plants do interact in the wild, and have fights and conversations and all kinds of other relationships, the Wikipedia claims go well beyond the limits of what I can find believable without a lot more than just Wikipedia's say-so.
12 In the sense of believing that if you have a question, it's usually possible to find out what the answer is, and in those cases where one can't find an answer, it's not an acceptable substitute to say "it's magic!" or "God did it!" or something like that. (Yes, I know I said it's magic how a tuber can grow a leaf without having any leaves first. I was making an extremely dark joke.) Which at the risk of going off on an extremely long and upsetting tangent, I've heard some really disturbing things about how science is presented in M. Night Shyamalan's recent abomination The Happening, particularly in a reported early scene where a science teacher (a science teacher, for the love of Pete!), is portrayed as telling a student that the best scientific answer to the question of what's going on with the honeybees and colony collapse disorder is "It's an act of nature that we can't understand." Friends! Romans! Canadians! This is not science! It's not even doing a good job of pretending to be science! Science, if anything, operates entirely on the assumption that all acts of nature are things that we can understand, at least in theory, at least eventually. To have a science teacher, in a widely-watched (if not widely loved) movie, say something like this, is to completely misrepresent science and everything it stands for. If I sound a little over-the-top and hysterical, well, it's a pretty over-the-top and ridiculous thing to have a scientist say (especially one who, I gather, is eventually shown figuring out the answer to the whole situation -- it'd be different if he were otherwise portrayed as a really dumb, or evil, or crazy scientist). There's not really a nuanced, well-maybe-they're-both-right position to take here. Science as (apparently) portrayed in the movie is as much like real science as a file cabinet with a sticker on it saying "cow" is like an actual living bovine. The sad(-der) part being that science education in the States, at least, is already so watered down that I'd be shocked if more than a handful of any audience choked on that line at all, or understood why it was wrong.