dioscorea elephantipes

How to Grow and Care for Tortoise Plant (Dioscorea elephantipes)

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If you’re looking for an interesting, low-maintenance indoor plant that provides year-round interest, the tortoise plant (Dioscorea elephantipes) is a species you’ll want to learn about. These Caudiciform perennials grow from an amazing corky stem that resembles a turtle shell, or elephant’s foot.  They have a long history of interest for humans, beginning as a food source, then as a medicinal plant, and today, as a desirable house plant. 

Read on to learn more about these weird and wonderful plants, and how to grow and care for them in your home. 

The tortoise plant is a very interesting species indeed. For many growers, the striking caudex (enlarged succulent stem) is interesting enough to earn the plant a spot in their homes. 

This structure can grow massive in nature, with some specimens reaching 10 feet (3m) across! The caudex starts off rounded, but as it grows, the caudex cracks, creating amazing geometric shapes that indicate growth rings. That’s not all they have to offer, however.

These deciduous houseplants usually put out green growth in the winter, although they often seem to have a mind of their own. When not dormant, Elephant’s foot is a vining plant that can look amazing when trained to grow on a trellis for example. It produces attractive, glossy green heart-shaped foliage and small, greenish-yellow flowers.

Plant Facts

Scientific nameDioscorea elephantipes
Common namesTortoise plant, Elephant’s foot, Elephant’s foot yam, Turtleback plant, Turtle shell, Hottentot bread
FamilyDioscoreaceae
Plant TypeHouseplant
Height and WidthUp to 6 ft. (1.8m) tall (indoors), caudex up to 10ft. (3m) wide in nature
OriginSouth Africa, Semi-Arid scrubland
Flower colorsGreenish Yellow
Foliage colorGreen
Sun ExposureDirect sunlight, partial sunlight, bright Indirect light
Soil Type & pHWell-drained gritty soil
Special featuresLow Maintenance, unusual, special interest 

How to Grow a Tortoise Plant

Unless you are able to find a potted specimen, you will need to grow your own plant from scratch. These plants are pretty slow-growing and have a shallow root system, so a 3-4 inch (7.5-10cm) pot will do just fine for the first few years. 

Grown indoors, these plants are easy to care for and do well in a well-lit area of the home. They don’t need a whole lot of attention, but there are some important things to know for success with this species. Let’s take a closer look at how to grow these fascinating African plants. 

Propagation

The only way to propagate new Elephant’s foot plants is by seed. Since these plants are slow-growing and dioecious, producing your own seed will take a plant of each sex and a good amount of patience! If you are in a position to produce your own tortoise plant seeds, be sure to let the seed capsule dry out fully before planting the winged seeds.

For most people, finding seeds online or from a specialist garden center will be the best way to get started. The best time to sow the seeds is in the fall. To get them germinating, cover them in about 5mm of soil in a shallow container and keep them moist. 

Soil

The best soil for your tortoise plant is a freely draining mix of potting soil that includes a small amount of organic compost to provide the plant with some nutrients. To improve drainage, you can mix in some grit or sand. Perlite is a great, lightweight alternative to sand that will also be effective. 

Pruning

When the foliage on your tortoise plant begins to turn yellow and brown, you know the plant is entering dormancy, and this is the time to prune. In the wild, they go through dormancy in the hot, dry summers and grow actively in the cool wet winters (1). They can go in and out of dormancy at pretty much any time of year when cultivated indoors, however.

Pruning will involve cutting off the vine just above the caudex with a clean, sharp cutting tool. Often, The plant will send up another vine within a matter of weeks. 

Repotting and Transplanting

Repotting is not something you’ll need to do too often because of the elephant’s foot plant’s slow growth rate. Under good conditions, however, the caudex can reach about 5 inches (12.5cm) across in 5 years, so eventually, it will need a bigger pot. 

Just as the plant starts coming out of dormancy is a good time to repot these plants. Take care to not damage the young vine while transplanting. Avoid compacting the new soil when up-potting this species because the roots will do much better in a loose medium. 

Although their caudex will be underground for the first year or two, the caudex of older specimens should not be buried. Instead, plant it just above the soil line, propped up by its roots. You can then use your top dressing to get the substrate level with the bottom of the caudex. 

dioscorea elephantipes

How to Care for the Tortoise Plant

Apart from the occasional repotting, and planning how you’d like to grow the vine, tortoise plants are very low maintenance and easy to care for. With or without the help of some floral wire, the vine that grows from your elephant’s foot plant can be trained to grow up a simple stake, trellis, or even something more natural like an interesting piece of driftwood. 

Read on to learn more about caring for these plants. 

Water

The tortoise plant is native to dry areas and will not survive being kept wet. It is best to water these plants well, but allow the soil to dry out between watering. This should mean watering once every week or two. 

It’s easy to know when this plant will need to be watered following this routine. If it has a green vine, it is actively growing and transpiring, and therefore needs water. You should provide very little or no water during the plant’s dormant period as this could cause root rot. 

When watering, avoid leaving a pool on the top of the caudex where the vine sprouts. Instead, water the soil directly all around the caudex.  

Sunlight

The tortoise plant is a bit of an interesting case when it comes to light requirements. These plants tend to grow amongst small shrubs where the caudex is partially to fully shaded out. The vine grows upon its neighbors’ branches to reach the sunlight above. 

To replicate these conditions, try to keep the caudex in the shade while allowing the vine access to bright indirect or even direct light in its growing phase. 

Temperature and Humidity

The tortoise plant is a species from very hot, dry climates. They will grow best in a room with minimum temperatures of about 65°F (18°C). They can survive much lower temperatures, however, and will survive outdoors in USDA hardiness zones 9b-11b or equivalent. 

Fertilizer

The tortoise plant is a slow-growing species that is adapted to live in relatively nutrient-poor conditions. Mixing in a little organic compost to the soil should be all these plants need, but you can supplement this with a very dilute liquid fertilizer to stimulate more vigorous growth. 

Pest and diseases

Apart from root rot issues when overwatered, the tortoise plant is generally disease resistant. They can be susceptible to some common houseplants pests like spider mites, thrips, aphids, and mealybugs, however.  

Conclusion

The tortoise plant is great for anyone looking for a unique and unusual house plant. Growing this species is a long-term project, so don’t be in too much of a hurry and rather enjoy the process!

*image by RukiMedia/depositphotos

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