Friday, August 12, 2011

Singing The Alocasia Blues

After many years of growing a variety of houseplants, I’ve formed specific relationships with different types. I have a great relationship with Aglaonemas and Dracaenas; we get along remarkably well. I am also good friends with Philodendrons, plants that fall all over themselves to please you. Dieffenbachias and I have an amicable relationship because we have come to an understanding. I understand their needs and apply them accordingly. They understand that if they don't perform well after I've met those needs, they'll end up at the curb.

The ponytail palm, sago palm and desert rose appreciate me and my efforts. All three perform reasonably well under my care, which is quite gratifying. Spider plants never make any demands, snake plants win awards regularly for ‘best performance’ and pothos grows like a weed. Hoyas, which I’m still not sure how I feel about, thrive, and bromeliads grow happily – and easily.

After many moons, and several discarded specimens, I can keep crotons fairly stable, although I’m not as fond of them as I used to be, so I don’t bring any home anymore. Peace Lilies and I have a rocky but recurring relationship. I don’t know what the appeal is exactly, but I do like these plants and can’t seem to live without them for too long. As a result, whenever one fails, I get another.

Euphorbia milii is on my top ten list; it’s easy to grow and it’s always full of blooms, year round – at least under my care. And the goldfish plant (Nematanthus gregarius) is not far behind with its undemanding nature and its eagerness to produce those charming, bright orange flowers. And the few Orchids that I’ve grown over the years haven’t given me a really hard time, although I certainly wouldn’t consider them the easiest plants to grow.

All in all, I can honestly say that almost every plant that has ever come under my care shows some signs of contentment and appreciation, which builds my confidence (and strokes my ego). Except for the evil Alocasia Amazonica. (Take a deep breath...hold it...exhale...) Now here’s a plant that tests my patience from the moment I bring it home. I pamper it to death and provide a stable environment, and instead of showing some gratitude, it plays head games. One month it’s shooting out a few new leaves and the next month it’s dropping them. No matter how much I try (plead), eventually it turns on me, getting down to one leaf that slowly, dramatically, withers and dies. Then when I’m finally ready to toss it (secretly happy to unburden myself from it), I notice the slightest hint of a new leaf emerging and I’m compelled to start the abusive cycle all over again. Okay, I could stop bringing Alocasias home and put an end to all this, but I’m convinced (this is called foolish pride) that I can conquer this plant.

My first Alocasia was devoured by spider mites, which, by the way, an Alocasia is highly-susceptible to. I neglected to check the plant for a long time and the mites literally took over, wrapping entire leaves in webs. I tried treating it but by then the plant was so weak that it started dropping its foliage. In addition, other insects had jumped on the bandwagon. It was a horror film in the making and I was happy to be rid of it.

My second one was doing wonderfully for a long time, growing one new leaf after another. I was afraid to touch it in fear that I’d curse or upset it, but it continued to grow happily no matter what. For awhile. Then one summer day, I noticed a leaf changing colours. The next day it began to wilt. By the end of the week it had died and the rest of the leaves had begun to check out as well. It was all downhill after that. Out of frustration, I tossed out that Alocasia, refusing to go through the cruel cycle again. Alright, I’ll admit I just wanted to free up the space for another plant.

The third one, the one I banished to my teenage daughter’s room when it got done to one leaf, fared just as badly. I was willing to give the plant the benefit of the doubt that it had gone somewhat dormant for the winter - or for whatever reason an Alocasia feels compelled to go dormant at any given time. But spring and summer came and went with no signs of new growth, so out it went.

That was my final attempt at growing this plant. There won’t be any more Alocasias in this house. No, I really mean it this time. Really. Sigh... Okay, maybe just one more time...

Okay, now that I’m done singing the Alocasia blues, here is some care information about this striking, albeit temperamental, beauty.

Temperamental But Beautiful

Despite my bellyaching, the Alocasia Amazonica is not the most difficult plant to grow. It’s not the easiest, and I certainly would never recommend it to a beginner, but it’s not impossible to grow inside an average home - at least not if you are fairly knowledgeable about houseplants. And even though it may be a tad high-strung and slightly demanding about its needs, it’s such an astonishingly beautiful plant that you can’t help but forgive it its shortcomings. Not forever, mind you; every one has their breaking point.

There are about 70 species of Alocasia, but the Amazonica - commonly referred to as African Mask or Shield Plant - is the one you will find frequently available at local stores. If you are planning on purchasing one of these ornamental plants, my advice to you is to pick one up as soon as a shipment of them has arrived. Alocasias deteriorate rapidly if their needs are not fulfilled properly (and promptly), and they end up looking terrible. They seem to forget (or they just don’t care) that there are oodles of other plants in the greenhouse that need attention, and that the staff is doing the best they can. So pick one up while it’s still fresh.

It is possible that your newly-purchased Alocasia may throw a small tantrum the first couple of weeks inside your house. It may drop a leaf or two to protest the unpleasant change from humid greenhouse to dry home. Don’t fret; it will adjust (reluctantly at first) as long as you provide the care it needs.

High levels of humidity are one of the most important factors in keeping this plant in good shape. Aside from brown leaf tips and the loss of leaves, spider mite infestations will become a huge problem if this plant is grown in hot, dry air. Add a humidifier nearby, place the plant on a pebble tray, surround the pot with damp peat or simply place it in a room where humidity is naturally higher, like a bathroom. Do whatever you need to do to get that humidity up.

If you peek through a few houseplant books, or do a search on the internet, you will find a diversity of opinions on how much light this plant really needs. Suggestions include: full shade, partial shade, bright light, bright but indirect light, morning sun, late afternoon sun, no sun (ever) and medium light. By the time you’re done researching about this plant, your head will be spinning.

Since light varies from home to home, and is affected by so many other factors or obstacles (curtains, trees, buildings, weather, season, screens), my advice to you is this: place your Alocasia near a bright window, out of the direct path of sun, and watch for signs of approval or disapproval. If your plant is leaning towards the light, something an Alocasia will do readily if the spot you’ve placed it in is too dim, move it closer to the window. Although I would never recommend placing this gorgeous plant in a low light area, I would also never recommend placing it in the path of hot, midday sun. A bright spot with indirect sun is typically ideal.

Use a porous, fast-draining medium and keep it evenly moist during the growing season. Allow it to dry somewhat in the winter, but never completely. Protect from cold drafts and keep your Alocasia in warm temperatures. If this plant dries out completely, or gets chilled, it will drop its leaves and go dormant. Fortunately, it grows new leaves promptly when you’ve remedied the situation (and learned your lesson).

Alocasias are prone to spider mite attacks but there is no reason on earth for the bugs to take over. Infestations will never get out of hand if you practice preventive measures to keep them at bay. Open windows regularly, and run floor or ceiling fans to circulate the air. Clean the leaves of your plant every month. Take the plant to your kitchen or bathroom sink and rinse the leaves under running water. You can also wipe the leaves with a damp sponge or give the plant a shower in the bathtub. If you’re treating an infested plant, keep humidity high (Alocasia will thank you!) to discourage pests from multiplying faster than you can get rid of them. More importantly, keep your plant in tiptop shape by watering properly and providing adequate light and humidity levels. A healthy plant utilizes its own resources to defend itself against infestations while a plant under stress is much more vulnerable to them.

This is a prime candidate for the hydroculture system. Conversion is fairly rapid with little or no signs of stress. Alocasia is also part of a select group of plants that suspend new growth during the transplanting process rather than discarding it. After water roots develop, the plant resumes growth of the new, unfurled foliage.

Alocasias are sensitive and their needs must be met accordingly to keep them happy. If you’re not willing to make that extra effort, don’t take one of these lovely plants home, it’ll disappoint you. And you’ll end up singing the Alocasia blues. Just like me.


  1. Just say no, Martha! Life is too short to beat yourself up over your inability to grow a fussy plant. get something that'll appreciate you and love you back.
    (I sound a bit like a marriage counselor, but you get the idea.)

  2. Ha are right, dirtynailz! And I do that now -- only pick up plants that appreciate all I do for them. Enough is enough!

  3. I have read more gardening blogs than I can count, and yours is the 1st one, I actually wanted to reply to. Your Alocasia story was really entertaining and well written. This is my first year having one in my house. It is a Alocasia Mayan Mask. It is HUGE and in a 20 inch pot with Philodendron Xanadu and Asparagus densiflorus 'Sprengeri'. I've had it indoors for about a month now as colder weather is upon us. So far so good. Regarding the humidifier, you are dead on! It wasn't until 5 days ago, I put the humidifier on next to my Alocasia, and I literally watched the leaves slowly rise up higher and higher until they were pointing almost straight up! Amazing. Funny thing is, as soon as I turn it off, I get to watch the process in reverse. It's crazy. Up and down, up and down. Other than that little bit of silliness, it is thriving in the bay window in sun from 8am to 12pm with its companions: 2 Philodendron Xanadu, Mahogany Fern, and a Draecana Palm. Of course, I have way too many spider plants around the house, but I can't bring myself to discard the babies because they are such reliable and forgiving plants. As for plants that have been unforgiving, I am like you, I give them a few chances, and then they are history and replaced. No reason to waste space with a "brat" when another more appreciative plant can take its place!

  4. hello! Almost all my flowers are in hydroponic system.. My gold ones and very belowed: kroton, dracena (various kinds), russula (various as well), peperomia, ferns, saintapaulia, Streptocarpus, anturium, Spathiphyllum, Pelargonium!, cissus
    Very very funny written is this story, just a common one if you consider it coldely. I just want to say I like it.
    I considered many times this beautiful flower and every time i concluded that the next time i meet it i must get the one but although i cant explain it at all - every time i get such an occasion something whispers "Dont do it!" and i obediently dont. Afterwords when i am home i am thinking "How the hell is it possible that i am still without Alocasia?" And i am looking for the next occasion of course.

    1. Hi Yvonne, thanks for visiting and commenting. If you're up to the challenge, give this plant a try. You never know... You might be very successful with it!