This pandemic has changed the face of gardening. It has become the springboard for discovering new plants and reinventing past trends of long forgotten varieties.
With indoor plants making a big wave, the big-leafed, the textured, and the variegated aroids take center stage. On the other end of the spectrum, a strange-looking plant that looks like a potato has gained stardom worldwide. It is the Stephania erecta.
Its popularity could be attributed to its striking peltate leaves and smooth globose tuber that makes it a conversation piece. Stephania erecta Craib (described by William Grant Craib with publication date of October 1922) is native to Thailand where it is found in thickets or forests with sparse vegetation. The soil in these central and northeastern regions where they abound are laterite or reddish in color due to ferric or aluminum oxide deposits. Natives gather them for their medicinal properties – to alleviate body aches and pains, and to relieve digestion problems among others. They can also be used as food on the table.
I purchased my first Stephania erecta in 2015 when I saw them being sold in piles with tiny parasol-like leaves poking from the tubers. I have been growing them ever since and has become one of the perennial favorites in my caudiciform collection.
Back then, initial research about this plant gave me nothing so I simply monitored its habit in cultivation. In situ, the tubers are completely buried with the stalk rising from the ground. Growing it in cultivation is an altogether different story.
How to make them sprout
Stephania erecta tubers are being sold as is, no roots, no leaves, just like potatoes. And the question I have been asked a hundred times is how to make them sprout. There is one simple answer: raise the humidity around the plant. How? A seed germination dome is perfect for sprouting multiple tubers all at the same time. An alternative is to place the potted plant inside an unsealed plastic bag. The plant can be watered with a solution of ANAA (Alpha Naphthalene Acetic Acid) and water. ANAA is a plant growth hormone. There are several brands in the market, the one with added Vitamin B1 is what I use.
The medium should be moist, not sopping wet before putting the plants inside the germination dome or plastic bags. They should sprout in two (2) weeks or less. Like I always say, all plants are not created equal. Some are fast growers, some are slow…. just like people, but that is a totally different story.
Potting your Stephania erecta
A gritty mix just like what we use for cactus is essential. My basic medium for my caudiciform plants is seventy parts (70%) fine pumice and thirty parts (30%) river sand. I tweak it depending on the plants’ needs.
When potting Stephania erecta, choose a vessel that is suitable diameter-wise. Clay pots are the best choice because of their porosity. Plastic or ceramic pots can be used provided they have ample drainage holes.
After filling the pot with gritty medium, the tuber can be placed directly on top, or can be lightly buried in the soil mix. The plant can be watered with ANAA solution as have been mentioned above. Then place the plant in bright shade until it is well established.
Taking care of your plant
The plant can be placed in a sunny location when it is well-rooted and with good amount of foliage, but never under the scorching summer heat. Most caudices can get sunburned, which is irreversible. One beauty of Stephania erecta is that it can be grown indoors, preferably near a window or a good source of light.
Short and erect branches with large verdant leaves are signs that the plant is getting enough sun. Long cascading stems with small leaves could mean that the plant should be relocated to a sunnier spot.
I noticed that Stephania erecta can exhibit pseudo-dormancy when neglected for a time. It will drop its leaves and lose its roots. Going back to normal watering and feeding regimen can make the plant bounce back. Most of the time, they come back from dormancy with blooms of tiny male or female yellow flowers.
Pest and diseases
Spider Mites is the only pest I have encountered so far on my Stephania erecta plants. If not caught immediately, they can spread fast. A concoction of neem oil, dishwashing detergent, and water can be sprayed on the plant.
Mottled yellow leaves could be a sign of pest infestation or nutrient deficiency among other things. The affected leaves should be carefully removed and examined for pests.
On the other hand, yellow leaves that fall off can be due to overwatering or underwatering. Always remember that underwatering is a much easier problem to remedy.
A Plant for All
Assuming you don’t have room for a huge Philodendron, or you are someone who has the infallible knack for killing plants, or you are looking for a perfect plant companion, then look no further. Stephania erecta is the one for you. It’s about time to bring the trend to your home or garden.
On a side note, I recently acquired almost a hundred tubers of Stephania erecta. My family gave me that raised-eyebrow look. Little did they know that I am hunting for that elusive variety of Stephania erecta. The one with red-rimmed leaves. I’ve got to have it. There, the secret is out. Now plant people will surely go crazy hunting with me.
This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s November to December 2020 issue.