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The Irrepressible Mother of Thousands Varieties

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The Irrepressible Mother of Thousands Varieties
Leaves on a mother of thousands plant

When I first encountered the Mother of Thousands, the first thing that came to mind was that this plant must be related to the ‘Mother of Dragons’. But that was just my Game of Thrones hangover talking. 

An intriguing name for a surprisingly plain-looking succulent plant, the Mother of Thousands Plants varieties show their special features when it’s time to reproduce! With its unusual physiology, the Mother of Thousands sprouts tiny plantlets from the groves of its leaves. Once these plantlets start coming out, it’s going to look really freaky.

The plantlets grow along the edge of the thick succulent leaves. The Mother of Thousands’ leaves are phylloclades, meaning they have a double organ identity as a shoot and a leaf. As the plantlets sprouting from the mother leaf mature, they grow their own roots and fall to the ground The plantlets initially get their nutrients from the mother plant, then eventually find their own way when they grow roots. 

The mature leaf weighs closer to the ground where the plantlets take root. The new plants settle close to the mother plant, and competes for nutrition with the mother. Contrary to the misinformation spread on the internet, the Mother of Thousands has other means of reproduction other than freaky, parasite looking plantlets. 

The plant also produces seeds. The main stalk can grow lateral roots, up to 15 cm or 6 inches from the ground. Should the plant topple, the lateral roots touch the ground and grow new main stalks, upwards. The seed of the Mother of Thousands (Bryophyllum daigremontianum) are produced from the plant’s pink bell shaped flowers. This means that the plant can cross pollinate and diversify its genetic pool, aside from cloning itself through plantlets and stem babies.

Close-up of Kalanchoe leaf with plantlets

Overview: Mother of Thousands

The Mother of Thousands makes a great houseplant, very suitable for beginners as it is easy to grow and propagate. It is an invasive succulent with thick juicy leaves. The leaves have a very catching dull blue green to pink color. The bell ‘donkey ear’ flowers are lilac to dark pink in color. The flowers come in clusters, individual flower size is around a joint of a finger. 

The Mother of Thousands is of the genus Bryophyllum, sometimes also classified under the genus Kalanchoe. This double classification is often times a point of contention and confusion. Bryophyllum and Kalanchoe are really two different plants, with some differences in appearance but both can easily cross propagate so they might as well be one plant. There are close to 200 varieties of this plant, with many different names. All varieties can propagate from seeds, the leaves and the stem. Truly, it takes all opportunities to further its existence.  

Many Names of the Kalanchoe

Other names for Mother of Thousands are Devil’s Backbone, Alligator Plant, Mexican Hat Plant, Mother of Millions, Pink Butterflies, Cathedral Bells, Chandelier Plant, Air Plant, Floppers, Hoja del Aire, Hoja Santa, and Life Plant. My favorite name would be ‘Evil Genius’ plant, as the baby plantlets do look very sinister. The names will vary, according to your local language. And since this plant comes in so many varieties, it’s easier to just call the whole group Kalanchoe.    

The Kalanchoe’s origin is Madagascar, varieties also grow in Southeast Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, and subtropical Australia. Other than its common English names, the Kalanchoe has many local names in different languages.   

Ideal Growing Conditions

This plant grows in warm regions, zones 9 to 11. The United States Department of Agriculture defines zones 9, 10, and 11 as zones where the lowest temperatures are from 25 to 40 °F or -3 to 4 °C. In these zones, frost is rare, and winter daytime temperature is warm. This is a tropical and sub-tropical climate, where it never freezes. The Kalanchoe can survive a drought, but it will not survive freezing temperatures. Winter is never coming for the Mother of Thousands. 

In the United States, these zones include Hawaii, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona and California. The Kalanchoe likes water, and does best in warm climates with high humidity. They’re native to an environment with excessive moisture, and need to be kept in a greenhouse or indoors if grown in other climates, zones 1 through 8. 

The Kalanchoe will flower in “winter”, the tropical version of winter when temperatures drop below 77°F or 25°C. However, don’t wait for seeds after blooming season, it may never come. Tropical winters are still very humid. The conditions for a blooming season from this plant is high humidity, and low temperatures that never reaches freezing. It’s far easier to propagate the plant with its leaves and stem, than to wait for seeds. 

Leaves on a mother of thousands plant

The plant can grow 36 to 48 inches (90 to 120 cm). With enough nutrition and sunlight, some varieties can reach the height of a full grown man. The plant can get top heavy, especially when it flowers. It can fall over with a gust of wind, breaking the crisp stem. It probably wants to fall over, as growing very tall with a brittle stem might be one of its reproductive strategies. As the tall stem falls, it gets to disperse its seeds and plantlets to grow further from the mother plant. Go forth and multiply, baby Kalanchoes!   

The Kalanchoe likes the sun, but will also grow in partial shade. It grows well in containers and outdoors, in a suitable climate. The size of the plant varies, and the wonderful thing about most Kalanchoe species is that the plant will actually limit its growth according to the size of its container or according to the nutrients of the soil. Under the right conditions, Kalanchoe can be invasive. 

Warning: Too Much Kalanchoe

If included in a cactus or succulent garden, there’s a high chance Kalanchoe will multiply faster than all your other plants, soon taking over everything. Complete domination is on this plant’s mind. The Kalanchoe is shameless, something to be careful about when planning your garden. It’s best to plant Kalanchoe separately in its own plot or isolated in a flower pot. If you grow in zones 9 to 11, invasiveness can be a problem. If you grow in other zones not suitable for Kalanchoe, invasion is not something to worry about. Kalanchoe will die at the first taste of freezing winter. 

All varieties, and all parts of this plant is poisonous when ingested. In some places, it is used as a topical medicinal plant.

How to Grow from Plantlets

Baby plantlets are clearly the most fantastic feature of this plant. You’re Mother of Thousands has now sprouted plantlets, they’re falling off and you’re excited. So it’s time to separate the plantlets from the mother leaves to grow in new soil.

I recommend using regular seedling compost, instead of a cactus compost. The Mother of Thousands can take a good amount of water, they won’t “drown”. The plantlets need to be kept watered, not kept dry. 

Gently sow the plantlets into the compost, roots covered by the soil. Each plantlet around one to two inches apart. These are very delicate, and the plantlet leaves tend to break apart. For the first week water the plantlets with a spray bottle to keep the soil moist but not soaked. If you’re growing in a zone that’s too arid, consider covering the seedlings with a plastic or glass tent, to make a mini greenhouse that will conserve moisture. 

The Mother of Thousands is native to tropical and subtropical climate. It needs a lot of sun and moisture to thrive. So keep the seedlings in a sunny spot, and spray frequently. Once in the soil, the plantlets grow very quickly. They should take root in the soil after two weeks. In two months, they’ll be ready for replanting. 

Replanting Indoors or Outdoors

Before replanting, soak the soil with water for a few hours to loosen the roots. A presoak reduces damage to the roots, as seedling roots tend to entangle with each other and can be difficult to separate. 

Carefully pull apart the seedlings, and prepare to replant into their individual pots. The seedling should be around 3 inches tall, with a delicate stem. There should be around four large leaves. At this point, seedlings will already start producing their own plantlets, even before they’re big enough to make flowers! 

If you’re growing in a tropical or subtropical climate, the seedlings can be directly planted outdoors and they’ll thrive. But for temperate climates, replant in larger trays or pots indoors, you’ll need to wait for the plant to be at least a foot high before it can be safely planted outdoors in the spring or summer. The plant needs warm weather. Replant in a half mixture of compost and perlite, the soil needs to have drainage. 

In three to five months, you’ll have a decent looking plant around a foot high. Mother of Thousands, tend to be thirsty plants. While they kinda look like a blue agave or an aloe vera, these guys are not desert plants and should not be treated as desert plants. The mature Mother of Thousands likes water, and does well in a rich compost. 

It’s a Cow Killing Weed! 

Mother of Thousands in bloom

Out in the wild pastures of Australia, the Mother of Thousands is a prolific invasive weed, with the potential to kill a cow. If a cow eats five kilos or 11 pound of this stuff, it keels over and dies. It’s happened before in Queensland, Australia.  

From 1960 to 1984, there were 41 reported incidents of cattle poisoning attributed to four species of Kalanchoe. The poisoning has affected 379 cattle, two cattle deaths have been reported. The plants are most poisonous when flowering. For this reason, the Kalanchoe is systematically destroyed in Queensland. In New South Wales, Australia, the Kalanchoe is considered a noxious weed, under the 1993 Noxious Weed Act of the state, where it is also systematically destroyed.  

In Hawaii, the Galapagos, Palau and French Polynesia, the invasive Kalanchoe is a threat to the ecosystem. Since Kalanchoe is so successful at propagating itself, it smothers the local vegetation, suppressing biodiversity.  

Despite this nefarious reputation, the Mother of Thousands and many of its relatives, continue to be popular ornamental plants. They survive on their looks and unique ability to grow babies on their leaves. They’re easy to grow, and survive long droughts when you forget to water them. In fact, a variety of Kalanchoe is called “Resurrection Plant”, for its unkillable quality. Just perfect for the negligent gardener.

While the Mother of Thousands is toxic enough to kill a cow, there are hardly any reports of it killing a person or any household pets. Even if you eat the leaves by accident, it’s unlikely to eat enough to accumulate toxicity. The Mother of Thousands is more dangerous for herding animals, as it can actually compete with grass for growing space.