Friday, February 25, 2011

Chlorophytum Comosum

During the 1970s, concern about the environment increased, and growing indoor plants achieved phenomenal popularity. Everyone was buying houseplants and creating their own green spaces. Homes were decorated with a variety of plants, college students filled their dorm rooms and apartments with greenery, and parents even bought plants for their kids to take to school with them. Though the trend was mainly focused on foliage plants such as swedish ivy, spider plants and ferns, even philodendrons, jade plants, peperomias, dracaenas, crotons, cacti, succulents and coleus made their way indoors in the 70s.

In addition, macramé hanging baskets were very popular during those psychedelic years, and the plant to hang in them was the most popular of all greenery in those days: Chlorophytum comosum. It was known as the spider plant or, with some people, the ‘airplane plant’ (I’ve even seen it referred to as the ribbon plant but this is quite rare). And even though decades have passed since the flower power days, and trends have come and gone, this lovely plant is still hanging around in many homes – minus the macramé, of course. (Although I’ve seen some of these hanging baskets popping up in stores. Could they be making a comeback? God help us. What’s next? Avocado-coloured appliances?)


There is a wealth of information available for this plant; below is my own contribution on what type of care it needs to stay alive and thrive.

Growing A Retro Spider Plant

Chlorophytum comosum, perfect in a hanging basket, is one of the most commonly-grown and easily identifiable indoor plants. It’s available everywhere throughout the year, and its immense popularity is perfectly fitting for a plant that adapts to – and easily tolerates – a wide range of indoor conditions. Fast growing, with attractive arching leaves, a Chlorophytum is also cherished for its ability to produce plantlets continuously. You can fill up your entire house with spider plants just from the ‘baby’ spiders you will keep potting up from the ‘mommy’ plant.

Chlorophytum is a large genus that consists of over 200 species, and although the plants are native to Southern Africa, they are also found in Australia, Southern Asia and even South America. There are a few cultivars available, most of which are variegated, although there is a Chlorophytum comosum with dark green, satiny leaves. The variegated spider plants have green edges with white or yellow centers, or white edges with green centers.

A spider plant is relatively free of diseases and pest infestations, as long as it is kept healthy, which makes it that much more appealing. It is not beyond being attacked by any of the common pests such as mealybug, scale or spider mites, but it doesn’t seem to be highly susceptible to them when the cultural needs are met accordingly and the plant is in peak condition.

Spider plants with variegated leaves require bright light – indirect sunlight is ideal - to maintain their variegation. They will adapt to lower light but the distinct colors will be lost; the leaves will turn into a single shade of green. In dimmer areas, growth will slow down and the plant may stop producing plantlets. Therefore, if you want maximum growth and a frequent production of ‘babies’, place your plant near a very bright window. Some early morning or late afternoon sunshine is ideal, but protect against the strong rays of the midday sun, which can burn the foliage.

Dry air is tolerated very well, although it could cause brown leaf tips if prolonged. In all the years I’ve been growing these plants, I have never seen any of them complain about low humidity levels if it’s a temporary situation. But even so, higher humidity levels are always much more appreciated. Although the preference is a slightly cooler location, the Chlorophytum comosum will handle warmer room temperatures of 18-24° C (65-75° F) very well. Avoid cold drafts and frosty areas.

The root system of this plant is large and tuberous, which allows the Chlorophytum comosum to handle water inconsistencies better than most plants. The succulent roots also come in handy during droughts – the periods when you forget to water! Use a fast-draining soil to avoid over-watering and always allow it to dry slightly between watering sessions. During the spring and summer when the plant is growing rapidly, water thoroughly and keep the soil evenly moist at all times. Although a spider plant does not have a true dormancy period, it will slow down somewhat during the winter season, so allow the medium to dry out slightly more during that period. If you prefer to wait for signs of thirst before watering, the spider plant’s leaves will turn pale and droop when the plant is parched. Remember that it’s better to under-water than to over-water. But don’t wait too long to hydrate either! You can also switch to the hydroculture growing style. Convert a full grown plant or start a new one – by rooting it in water - from one of the plantlets. Either way is acceptable. Spider plants adapt quickly to the system, like they do with everything else, with very few negative reactions.

Brown leaf tips, which inevitably appear, are perhaps the only negative feature of this otherwise faultless plant. Besides dry air, sensitivity to fluoride or other chemicals in tap water can cause brown tips. Switch to distilled or bottled water, or alternate between the former two and tap water to see if the browning is reduced. An accumulation of salts from water and fertilizer also cause the browning of leaf tips. Leach the soil of your plants occasionally. To do this, water the soil repeatedly with large amounts of water to flush out excess salts. Try to do this at least 3 or 4 times per year. In addition, remove the brown tips with a pair of scissors to improve the appearance of the plant.

There isn’t really much else to growing this plant successfully. Even under the worst care, this robust plant will manage to hang around. It may end up looking unattractive, but it will cling to life, refusing to surrender to the big greenhouse in the sky. And because it’s so difficult to kill a spider plant, it’s a perfect choice for a beginner and a neglectful grower.

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