It’s hard not to be fascinated when you first see a mother of thousands plant. Not only is this succulent a super-cool addition to your houseplant collection, it’s also a tough, low-maintenance curiosity. In this article, I’ll introduce you to this unique plant and give you all the info you’ll need to grow a thriving, healthy mother of thousands plant of your own.
What is a mother of thousands plant?
One look at this plant and you’ll see where its common name comes from, but the plant has other common names as well, including devil’s backbone, Mexican hat plant, and alligator plant. There are two species of plant that are commonly called mother of thousands: Kalanchoe daigremontiana (syn. Bryophyllum daigremontianum) and Kalanchoe x laetivirens. Both species are in the Kalanchoe genus (which is in the broader Crassulaceae family), and the two plants look a lot alike. The most noticeable difference is that the former species has dark stripes on the backside of the leaves while the latter has leaves that are solid green. No matter which of these two species you grow, the mother of thousands plant is truly beyond compare.
One of the most unique succulents
A native of the African island nation of Madagascar (which is a hub of amazing biodiversity with over 90% of its wildlife having evolved in isolation), humans have transported the plant around the globe, and it has now naturalized into other tropical regions. It’s currently found in parts of South America, South Africa, Florida, and even Hawaii. In some of these areas it has become invasive and is displacing native plant species. If you live in one of these regions and choose to grow it, be sure the plant does not escape cultivation.
What makes this plant so unique are the tiny plantlets that occur along the edges of the leaves. Thousands of them can occur on a single plant (hence their common name, of course). A drought-tolerant, succulent plant species, the fleshy, blue-green leaves grow up to 8 inches long. Plants reach about 3 feet tall, but typically stay smaller when it’s grown as a houseplant. There are few houseplants that match this plant’s prowess for grabbing people’s attention.
Where can you grow a mother of thousands plant?
While you can grow this plant outdoors if you live in a tropical climate that does not receive freezing temperatures (USDA hardiness zones 9-11, for example), most plant lovers grow it as a houseplant. The mother of thousands plant is not frost tolerant and will readily succumb to freezing temperatures.
When grown as a potted houseplant, it can be moved outdoors during the summer months. Just be sure to move the pot back indoors in early autumn, long before cold night temperatures arrive. Choose a site that receives direct sunlight for several hours in the morning but dappled partial shade in the hottest part of the afternoon for the first few weeks after moving it outdoors. Once the plant has acclimated to outdoor conditions, you can gradually expose it to more afternoon sun if you’d like. Just don’t do it too quickly or foliage burn or bleaching could be the result.
The best light for a mother of thousands plant
Indoors, choose a location that receives morning sun. In the northern hemisphere, an east facing window offers the best exposure by providing full sun in the morning and diffused light in the afternoon. Another option is to set the plant a few feet back from a south facing window that receives full sun for the longest, hottest part of the afternoon. In other words, if you grow it in a south facing window, keep it away from direct sunlight exposure, particularly at mid-day.
North facing windows are a poor option as they do not receive enough light to support this plant. Spindly plants signify too little light.
When will a mother of thousands plant flower?
Many people are surprised when their succulents flower because they are primarily grown for their attractive foliage. But like its cousin the jade plant, the mother of thousand plant does produce blooms from time to time. They are sporadic and will only occur when the plant receives optimum light. The candelabra-like flower stem is upright and produces petite, bell-like flowers that are pink to orange. If you take the plant outdoors for the summer, it will occasionally bloom soon after you bring the plant back indoors for the winter.
How often to water and how to do it right
Because this is a succulent species that is very drought tolerant, there is no need to water it religiously. In fact, I find the plant often does better when subjected to slight neglect.
First, be sure there are drainage holes in the bottom of the pot to allow excess irrigation water to freely escape. I like to grow mother of thousands in a terracotta pot because it is porous and looks great, but plastic or ceramic pots work fine, too. If the roots receive too much moisture too frequently, the plant will suffer. Learning how to water a mother of thousands plant is one of the keys to keeping the plant happy. Here’s what I suggest:
- During the spring, summer, and fall, water every 14 to 21 days.
- In the winter months, when the plant is not actively growing, water every 21 to 28 days.
- If the plant is growing in a pot outdoors during the hot summer months, water every 5 to 7 days.
To properly water a mother of thousands plant, take the pot to the sink and turn on the tap. Run room temperature water through the soil for several minutes, allowing it to drain out the holes in the bottom of the pot. Once the soil is thoroughly soaked, let the pot drain in the sink for 15 minutes before putting it back on display.
Another option is to bottom water your plant. Here’s more on how to bottom water houseplants.
Which potting soil is best for the mother of thousands plant
Since it is a succulent plant, a free-draining, gritty potting mix is the best option for mother of thousands. Rather than using a peat moss-based soil mix, opt for a cactus mix that contains a combination of larger particles such as sand, perlite, pumice, and vermiculite. For decoration, you can top the soil with a layer of pebbles if you’d like.
Fertilizing your mother of thousands plant
Regular fertilization is not necessary for a mother of thousand plant. If you neglect this task, don’t sweat it. I aim to fertilize my plant with a liquid fertilizer formulated for houseplants or a fertilizer for succulent plants once every 6-8 weeks or so, but I often end up doing it whenever I happen to think of it. Remember, this is a tough plant that does not require coddling.
The main key to fertilizing a mother of thousands plant is to do so only when the plant is actively growing, which means from spring through fall. Don’t fertilize in the winter. Here in Pennsylvania, I start fertilizing in mid-March and continue every 6-8 weeks until early September. This schedule provides nutrients to the plants during their prime season of growth without overdoing it.
The mother of thousands plant is known for its easy propagation. The tiny plantlets that develop along the edges of its leaves form roots while still attached to the plant. They drop or are knocked off by wind or passing animals and take root. This is one of the ways the plant naturally spreads. As the gardener, you can aid in this propagation process if you want to make new plants to share with friends.
Simply remove a few of the baby plantlets from the leaf margins as you carefully hold the leaf stem. Use your fingernails or a plant tweezers for the job. Gently pot up the tiny plantlets into a clean pot of pre-moistened regular potting mix. If they have not yet developed roots, make sure the bottom portion of their little stem is in contact with the soil. Roots will form quickly.
Mist the plantlets and the soil and cover the entire pot with a clear plastic bag for 2 to 3 weeks. Put the pot near an east-facing window but not in direct sunlight. Remove the bag when the time has passed but continue to mist or water the soil every few days. When 8 weeks have passed, the new plants are fully rooted and can be divided and moved into other pots filled with cactus potting mix if you’d like.
Additional care advice and a warning
- All parts of mother of thousands plant contain a toxic compound so if you have little kids or pets that like to nibble on plants, consider finding an alternative plant to grow, or place the pot on a high shelf where they will not be able to access it. Where it grows wild, there have been reports of cattle poisoning.
- If your plant grows too tall for its location, you can prune the stems back by as much as half of their total height. Stick the pieces of removed stem into a pot of potting soil and they’ll take root, providing you with more plants to share with friends.
- Unlike tropical houseplants, the mother of thousands plant does not require high humidity levels.
- Keep the plant away from forced air heating ducts or other hot or cold drafts which could affect the plant’s overall health or cause the baby plantlets to drop off prematurely.
Whether you call it mother of thousands, the Mexican hat plant, the alligator plant, or the devil’s backbone, this special plant deserves a home on your favorite plant shelf.
For more unique houseplants, please visit the following articles:
- The blue star fern
- Fishbone cactus care tips
- How to grow a Jewel Orchid
- Kangaroo paw fern
- String of dolphins plant