Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, even in horticulture. I purchased what is now one of my favorite houseplants thinking it was a totally different species than what it actually was.
I found the plant in question at last year's Mom's Day Flower Show at the University of Illinois. This student-run show is created by the Horticulture Club. All the plants used in the show are for sale, plus there is section of various potted and hanging baskets for sale. I always find plants that I didn't know I needed when I attend this show.
This plant stood out to me in the display of hanging baskets. Pointed, glossy green succulent leaves spilled over the sides of the basket. There were no labels on the plants, and thinking I knew what I was looking at, I assumed the plant was a Hoya, a plant with pointed, glossy green succulent leaves that has a reputation of being practically indestructible indoors plus it produces flowers without a lot of extra effort. I thought this would be perfect for my office, where sometimes plants suffer due to my absentmindedness and busy schedule.
I hung my beautiful new plant in the window of my office, which received what I thought was adequate sunlight, and I promised myself I'd remember to water appropriately.
Slowly, the plant's leaves began to yellow and drop (at least partially due to my forgetting to water it.) About two months after I bought the plant, I was left with only a few living stems and leaves. Our office was getting ready to move, so I was left with the eternal question: Was this plant worth saving? Or should I just sacrifice it to the compost gods and start over?
My inner frugality took over, and I repotted the few stems remaining that had any life in them and gave them a dose of fertilizer. I placed the wimpy specimens in my new office window and didn't expect much. Boy was I surprised!
Within a couple of weeks new growth emerged and grew rapidly. While I did have better light in the new office, I also think the plant was getting far better care in a pot on my desk rather than a hanging basket near the ceiling. It was a case of 'out of sight out of mind' in my old office.
As the new growth developed, I noticed what appeared to be flower buds developing at the base of the leaves. Still thinking what I had was a Hoya plant, I was pretty impressed with myself. Hoyas typically have to reach a certain age (usually several years old) or stem length before they will flower. Here I thought I had flowers in a month's time!
As the flowers developed, they looked nothing like Hoya flowers. The bright red flowers eventually emerged from deep burgundy, almost black structures that resembled small flowers themselves. The plant was covered in these amazing flowers.
A little research revealed the true identity of this plant-- Aeschynanthus radicans, commonly known as the "lipstick plant". The common name comes from how the flowers develop. The bright red flowers emerge from the burgundy-black structures, called the calyx, almost like twisting open a tube of lipstick.
There are at least 185 species of Aeschynanthus, all native to southern and southeast Asia. They are cousins of the widely popular African violet. The species most commonly grown as a houseplant is Aeschynanthus radicans, the plant I have. But there are others grown indoors that have orange or yellow flowers, or variegated foliage. Most Aeschynanthus are considered to be easy to grow. But as I so clearly proved in my old office, even an "easy to grow" plant has some minimum care needs—at least adequate water and light to start with.
The lipstick plant doesn't ask for much. The big difference when moving to my new office was a slightly brighter exposure, and consistent watering. This plant can handle the occasional dry spell, but prefers consistent moisture without being overly wet. Being from the tropics, it also prefers high humidity. That being said, too much water will promote rapid demise from root rot.
The plant that was reduced to a few spindly stems is now a very lush specimen that is starting to produce another round of flowers. It has flowered consistently since those first blooms appeared last summer. Watching this plant's flowers develop while the snow flies outside is a great reminder that spring will come our way soon.