Chlorophytum comosum (Thunb.) Jaques
Common names: hen-and-chickens, spider plant (Eng.); hen-en-kuikens (Afr.); iphamba (Zulu)
Chlorophytum comosum is a perennial lily-like plant with tuberous roots, bearing spreading to recurved soft leaves from a central rosette and an elongated raceme with small white flowers. This is probably the most cultivated house plant in the world, especially the cultivars.
Perennial evergreen herbs up to 1 m tall and 1 m in diameter from a decumbent (spreading horizontally at first but then growing upwards) rhizome up to 150 mm long, often covered in old leaf bases. Roots fleshy and tapering at both sides (fusiform), succulent, up to 10 mm in diameter. The linear leaves grow in a dense basal rosette, are bright green, smooth (glabrous) with a prominent mid-vein, and channelled, about 300 mm long and 20 mm broad, end in a soft point, and the margins are entire and sheathing at the base. The inflorescence is lax, longer than the leaves, spreading, arises from the centre of the rosette and is up to 1 m long. The peduncle (stalk of the inflorescence) is 2-4 mm in diameter and has linear-lanceolate bracts tapering to a point.
The flowers are often replaced by vegetative leafy buds (propagules), which root and serve for vegetative reproduction. The flowers grow in axillary fascicles. The individual flowers are star-shaped (stellate), white and up to 20 mm in diameter with 6 stamens. The floral leaves (tepals) are oblong, up to 10 mm long, becoming reflexed. The style is smooth and small with a minute point (stigma). The fruit is a 3-angled capsule and its seeds are flattish, black and shiny. Flowering period: During the summer months.
Chlorophytum comosum is one of 38 Chlorophytum species in South Africa (Archer 2003) and is easily distinguished by its spreading inflorescence bearing vegetative plantlets rooting when the inflorescence touches the ground.
Chlorophytum comosum is widespread and not threatened in its habitat. It was therefore not necessary to include it in the Red Data Book (Raimondo et al . 2009).
Distribution and habitat
Chlorophytum comosum is widely distributed from Swellendam in the Western Cape to the Soutpansberg in the Limpopo Province (Western Cape, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces). It is found from sea level to elevations of more than 1 000 m. It occurs in the undergrowth of forested river valleys, mountainous regions and thickets, on steep embankments, flat terrain and cliffs.
It grows on a variety of soils (volcanic or sedimentary) derived from sandstone, shale, dolorite or granite. The soils are usually slightly acidic. The climate varies from hot to cool during winter, and when frost occurs it is mild. Rainfall ranges between 500 and 2000 mm per annum and occurs mainly during spring and summer, however in the Western Cape it occurs also during winter.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The generic name Chlorophytum relates to the leaves of the plants and is derived from the Greek words chloros = yellow-green, and phyton = plant). Although this may be true for some species, the vegetative parts are green and not yellow-green in C. comosum. The specific epithet comosum also refers to the leaves. Coma, is derived from the Greek word kome , a tuft of hairs, and relates to the leaves arranged in a rosette.
Chlorophytum comosum was first collected by Carl Thunberg (known as the father of South African botany) on one of his expeditions to the eastern interior in the Langekloof near Uniondale and named by him in 1794.
Chlorophytum comosum often grows in dominant stands in forested moist river valleys (Mucina & Rutherford 2006). This is due to the effective vegetative propagation by means of the plantlets rooting on the spreading inflorescence. The succulent roots enable the plant to cope during dry winter conditions. The small white flowers are rather insignificant and are pollinated by insects. The small flattish seeds are borne in capsules which ripen during summer and autumn. The ripe capsules are held in an erect position. The plant is variable with several local forms. In the Eastern Cape, near Mboyeti, plants have wavy or undulating leaf margins. At Kouga Dam, on the sheer cliffs, plants were encountered with leafy stems up to 300 mm long.
The plants have been used medicinally by the Nguni (Hutchings et al. 1996), especially for pregnant mothers and as a charm to protect the mother and child. The plant is placed in the room where the mother and child stay. The roots are dipped into a water bowl and mothers drink this daily as it is believed to protect the infant. The young baby is also administered an infusion, acting as a purgative.
Plants are very popular in cultivation due to their drought-tolerance and their relatively disease- and pest-free nature. In South Africa they are grown as pot plants, in hanging baskets or as ground cover under trees. The hanging plantlets on the extended inflorescences are very decorative. The species is also very effective on steep embankments to combat soil erosion.
Various cultivars have been named- see below. The first two are very popular and are grown worldwide. The third is relatively new to cultivation:
Chlorophytum comosum 'variegatum '. This popular form has leaves with white margins.
Chlorophytum comosum 'vittatum '. This popular form has leaves of which the centre portion adjacent to the midrib is white.
Chlorophytum comosum 'Mboyeti '. This cultivar has undulating leaf margins. It was introduced from Mboyeti in the Eastern Cape.
Growing Chlorophytum comosum
Chlorophytum comosum grows very well in cultivation. Its ornamental, gracefully ascending-spreading to recurved leaves in a central rosette make it so popular. The many `pups' or vegetative plantlets are usually given away by the owners and this has resulted in the species being one of the most commonly used and popular house plants throughout the world. The white-striped cultivars are probably more often grown than the original plant. In the garden it grows best under trees or on shady embankments, especially in gardens in the Indian Ocean Coastal Belt. It is a fast grower. In other parts of the world it can also be grown out-of-doors, but is best cultivated in Mediterranean-type gardens where frost is not too severe (parts of California and the Mediterranean). The plant prefers partial shade, especially in hot dry climates. It should therefore be protected from full sun. Plants should reach flowering size within a year.
Chlorophytum comosum is easily propagated by division or from the plantlets on the inflorescences. The plantlets can be transferred directly to small containers. It can also be grown from seed whichis best sown during spring or summer in a warm, shady position in a sandy slightly acidic soil. Cover with a thin layer of sand and keep moist. Germination is usually within 3 weeks. Seedlings grow fast and are best planted out as soon as they are big enough to handle. Plants react well to organic feeding (compost or any other liquid fertilizer). Chlorophytum comosum is best watered throughout the year.
- Archer, C. 2003. Anthericum . In G. Germishuizen & N.L. Meyer (eds), Plants of southern Africa: an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 14: 969-970. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- Hutchings, A., Scott, A.H., Lewis, G. & Cunningham, A.B. 1996. Zulu medicinal plants. An inventory . University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg.
- Mucina, L. & Rutherford, M.C. (eds) 2006. The vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Strelitzia 19. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
- Obermeyer, A.A. 1962. A revision of the South African species of Anthericum, Chlorophytum and Trachyandra. Bothalia 7: 670-711.
- Raimondo, D., Von Staden, L., Foden, W.,Victor, J.E., Helme, N.A., Turner, R.C., Kamundi, D.A. & Manyama, P.A. (eds) 2009. Red List of South African plants 2009. Strelitzia 25. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
- Van Jaarsveld, E.J. 1010. Waterwise gardening in South Africa and Namibia. Struik, Cape Town.
Ernst van Jaarsveld
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Ground Cover
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Loam
Flowering season: Autumn
PH: Acid, Neutral
Flower colour: White
Aspect: Shade, Morning Sun (Semi Shade)
Gardening skill: Easy