Monday, May 19, 2008

Community Organizer (Ledebouria socialis)

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.

"So, wow, crazy weather, huh?" "You said it, boy. I've never seen a year like this." "Dude: you're only five months old." "Okay, but still. Crazy, crazy weather." "Sure is."1

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 (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.

I think this is a L. socialis, though it's possible that it's a different Ledebouria species. I can't remember if mine looked like this when I bought them or not. It was kind of a long time ago; there's been a lot of soil under the bridge since then.5

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 --

The flowers in this picture aren't fully opened yet, but they didn't get any more interesting than this when they were open. They're just tiny little bell-shaped white things. The leaves are better.

-- 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.


Aiyana said...

I've found this plant more adaptable to heat (if the humidity is high--high in AZ means 25-30%) than it is to colder weather (cold means 35-45 degrees in AZ). It has trouble adjusting if there are temperature extremes such as our recent 85 degrees to 110 degrees in a matter of days. I have it in the house again, and it will stay in until the humidity starts going up again in our Monsoon season.

Jacky said...

I had one leaf of something I called my "strange little plant" for years. I can't remember now where it came from. Over time it gradually increased and this year has flowered for the first time ever. I was ridiculously thrilled recently to discover its name from an exhibitor at the Chelsea Flower show.I can be over-generous with watering, but it has survived everything I've done so far

Anonymous said...

My Ledebouria socialis have done well in the direct sun of Las Vegas (afternoon sun, the hottest we have). They make rabbits look celibate and don't seem to mind long spells without water. They survive our winters with no problems in my covered patio, a large cold frame, really, that gets down to frost temps.


Unknown said...

Thanx for all the info. I posted a plant on my blog today asking people what it is. I was told it was one of these so am searching around more. However the underside of mine's leaves are purple like the bulbs and the flowers are purple.

Anyway, Thanx!

Tarn said...

Hi! I was excited to learn the name of this plant a couple months ago on a succulent/semi-succulent website. (I also picked up the term succulentophile there, which is what I now call my boyfriend. Lol.) We got our bulbs from my dad who has been neglectfully nurturing the mother plant for a few years. We're in a Zone 7 in MD, and we'd see it in full glory like a big mop head, and then it would struggle throughout the winter until next spring. During the winter he'd bring the plant inside and leaves would wilt which makes them look REALLY sad because they fold over and break. Once they've broken, there's no bringing back a leaf. So my boyfriend "stole" a few bulbs this past spring because he wanted some plants at our house and they have taken off ridiculously. Two baby bulbs have since filled an entire 6 inch pot. We keep them outside for the summer in deep shade and they still maintain their vibrant purple coloring on the backs of the leaves and the tops have a beautiful silver mottling against the greenish-purplish background. We've also split a few bulbs and given them to his dad and he loves it too. It really is quite a sociable plant!

Nate said...

HA! I have been looking for the identity of this plant for a cupple of months now and I just happened uppon it here while looking for something else.

These really are darn near indestructable, I got one bulb durring a horticulture demo in third grade and neglected it for litteraly years ( though I think my mom snuck it some water when I wasn't looking) and now 14 years later it and all of its innumerable offspring are sitting in my living room waiting to be repotted (again *rolls eyes*.

christie said...

Very thorough post! I was just given one by a fellow enthusiast. A perfect little specimen with a single bulb and a single flower (for the moment). I'm excited to see if I can keep it looking good. It's not the sort of plant I'm typically drawn to, but I'm intrigued. I'm in zone 10 and he said he prefers to keep them somewhat shaded. I have mine on the top shelf of my bookshelf near a curtained window. We'll see what happens.

Rick said...

I have two varieties of Ledebouria socialis, var. 'violacea', and var. 'Miner', which is a smaller variety. ('Miner" is the correct spelling. There was some nomenclatural disagreement, and so "Minor" could not be used.)

Both plants have done very well in my windowsill, and they usually flower every spring. I suspect that they are photoperiodic, and respond to the lengthening days of spring. They are evergreen, and get regular water all year long, in a fast draining soil, so I have not had a problem with rot.

When a plant looks "exhausted", either move the plant to a larger pot with fresh soil, or divide it, and start it with fresh soil. When I start a new bulb, I plant it about half its height to get good contact with the soil. As it roots, it lifts out, and displays its bulb on the surface, which is unusual for most bulbs, and is one of the things about this plant that intrigue me. The other intriguing thing is the unusual leaf color. 'Miner' has little purple bars on the underside.

I have several bulb type plants, and this one has remained my favorite.

JennyB. said...

I have a ledebouria sp. and love it. It's due for a repot, but I'm lazy about such things. I do notice that it looks great after a summer outside (AM sun, PM shade). My only "pest" to report is my cat, who, when the plant comes in for the winter, makes a beeline for it, like he's been waiting all summer for the opportunity to decimate this plant. So, we have to keep the plant in less-than-ideal light for the winter, to keep it from becoming an all-you-can-eat salad bar. It looks pretty ragged and tired by the spring, but once outside, it resumes putting out new bulbs and leaves like crazy.

Anonymous said...

I'm excited to find this post. Been trying to find out what it was. Some was given a couple of decades ago and grown since. Tough plant, but active growth slows when it gets too cool or when it gets really hot. Last summer outside in Texas it sat still a lot of the time. I'm really pleased to find the real name.

Anonymous said...

This is the plant that led me to PATSP. I'd been trying to id it for years. Odd thing this week. I went to pull up what I thought was a patch of crabgrass seedlings sprouting and discovered it was a patch of Ledebouria socialis seedlings. The plant blooms heavily in the spring and apparently makes seeds. I have two pots outside under a tree, one hanging the other on a flat stone. After finding all these seedlings under the hanging pot I checked and found some around the stone coming up. Unexpected because I'd never noticed it happening before.

Texas Anon

Anonymous said...

I'm relieved to find so much info about this plant. I nearly killed mine before 'I knew what was happening, not only a pest dining on it, but to much water. I live in a very, very windy area, and the wind was hard on it, too. I've brought it inside for the winter. Your articles have given me hope that it will survive.
To JennyB, I have read that all parts of this plant are poisonous.

Timbob6 said...

I have read in more than one place that this plant is very toxic to people and animals

Unknown said...

I picked this up at a local grocery store, completely unlabelled. Glad to figure out what it is! The bulbs on mine are thoroughly buried in the soil - will that be an issue?

mr_subjunctive said...

Erin Perry Borron:

My guess would be that it's probably not a big problem -- I've propagated some of mine by burying the bulbs deeper than I think they'd prefer to grow naturally,[1] and I don't think the planting depth has had much effect on their long-term health. There may be a level that's too deep, but when I divided mine recently, I found some bulbs completely under the soil, budding from the roots of other bulbs, so it seems like they can kind of move themselves around to a degree, to find the soil level they want.

If you want to hedge your bets a little, you could pull out a couple individual bulbs and put them in a separate pot, so that if the original plant dies you have a backup. If the original turns out to be fine, you have one to give to somebody,[2] so it's kind of win-win.


[1] (mostly because if I don't, for the first few weeks after the division, the plants are more prone to fall over when I water them)
[2] (Though as the other comments attest, they're not pet-safe, so make sure recipients know this. It's particularly dangerous to cats, in whom it causes kidney failure, and it can be fatal.)

Unknown said...

Thanks for posting pictures of my beloved "Leopard Lily" Ledebouria Socialis Violacea now I know what this prolific almost can't hurt houseplant is. Lily came to me from a flea market food event & is crawling out of her pot. However I am afraid of transplanting because she is in full bloom. Should I wait? I was going to gift one of her offspring to my daughter who doesn't have a green thumb & has killed everything I have given her except "Lil Aloe" but has cats. This plant is very toxic to plant munching cats (Catnip Foragers) will it do well in a hanging planter? What are your thoughts on that since this loves being on top of the soil.

mr_subjunctive said...

Jean Lockwood:

I don't think I've ever tried transplanting while the plant was blooming personally, so I can't promise that it'll be okay, but I also don't have any reason to think it'd kill the plant either. For what it's worth, I've seen a lot of pots of L. socialis that were crammed full of bulbs and seemed to be fine, so repotting probably isn't an emergency. Make your best guess, I suppose.

As for the hanging planter question, I don't think I would risk it, even in a hanging basket. I think the plant would be fine, assuming that it's not hanging right next to the ceiling. However, as the plant grows, some of the bulbs will wind up over the edge of the basket, and I wouldn't personally want to bet the life of someone else's cat on the bulbs not falling off onto the floor occasionally. I mean, probably it would be fine, but leaves and bulbs do come off occasionally without a lot of provocation, so I wouldn't be comfortable knowingly giving this plant to someone who had cats, period, even if I'd taken steps to prevent the cat from getting to the plant.

(Which sort of sucks; I have someone in my life who I think would find this an easy plant to grow, and who would probably like it, were they not also a cat owner. If you're looking for a plant that does well in bright light, is self-propagating, stays fairly small, is easy to grow, and won't harm cats if eaten, I'd suggest Haworthia or Saxifraga stolonifera.)

Anonymous said...

I have a ledebouria (identified by the Royal Horticultural Society in Wisley) which has striped (lengthwise) spear shaped leaves. Lives in an unheated greenhouse in winter so cannot mind the cold too much. Anybody else have this one?