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Plant Spotlight: Chlorophytum comosum (Spider Plant)

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When it comes to houseplants, there is one specimen in our indoor jungle that is near and dear to our hearts. Well, not to say that all of our houseplants aren’t near and dear, but one in particular stands out for its stubborn refusal to let go despite trauma after trauma. During the most bitter winter we’ve certainly experienced, we watched this thing cling to life in a drafty bay window when temperatures inside were lower than they’d ever been. It stuck with us despite repeated missed waterings, and a few particularly vicious assaults from (very, very BAD) cats.

Between the freeze damage, chewing, and neglect, the poor thing was browned down almost to the soil, and all the new growth and babies were dead. After removing the damage from the plant, we were left with stumps only a few inches tall and a plant that was a quarter of the size it was when purchased. It was repotted into something a little more roomy, given nice fresh soil, and put in a sunnier area, but truth be told, we didn’t expect it survive—it looked absolutely horrible. We just sort of started fertilizing, watering regularly, and hoped for the best.

As it turns out, you can’t keep a good spider plant down. It has been about three months since it was trimmed down to a sad mangled stub, and not only has Spidey bounced back, but he’s rapidly regenerating to his original height, and the new growth is about as green and vibrant as we’ve ever seen. It might be quite a while before we start seeing plantlets again, but we are content watching our spider recover and improve after a rough few months.

The spider plant’s fancy name is Chlorophytum comosum, and it is originally from South Africa where it grows as a flowering evergreen perennial. It was first collected and harvested by Carl Peter Thunberg, an Apostle of famed botanist, Carl Linnaeus, in 1794 (the genus Thunbergia was named for him, and includes Indian clock vine and black-eyed Susan vine). Though it comes in a few varieties, the most popular varieties for indoor growing are variegated. The plant features long skinny leaf blades that cascade down over its container like ribbons, and its most recognizable trait, long flowering stalks that hang down and eventually produce dozens of smaller plantlets. These plantlets are what earn this plant its common name, as the little leaf blades resemble the legs of spiders, and they are what make the spider plant a prized hanging basket plant. If the plantlets are not removed, they will grow on the stalk and hang down in a bushy green cascading display.

The spider plant has long been a favored houseplant, due to its tolerance of pretty much everything. They have been used as a foliage for shady areas, and to control erosion on slopes. They also have a history of use in traditional African and Asian medicine, acting as an aphrodisiac, burn treatment, and protective charm for expecting or new mothers and their infants. Spider plants are also known for their ability to absorb and trap potentially harmful contaminants in the air we breathe. In an effort to create cleaner air for those spending long periods of time aboard space stations, NASA and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) teamed up to complete a study on how common houseplants may filter polluted air indoors. The results of this study suggest that the spider plant is effective at reducing the amount of formaldehyde, xylene, and toluene found in the air. To use spiders (or any other air-purifying houseplant) to clean the air, you will need at least one large plant for every 100 square feet.

There isn’t much to taking care of a spider plant—as we’ve said, they’re tolerant and they are certainly resilient. They can be potted in a basic potting mix with good drainage. Though they like a good drink of water on the regular, they are very susceptible to root rot, so be sure that water can escape quickly from the pot, and allow the surface of the potting mix to dry before watering again. Your spider will thrive in any bright window, but if you don’t have an area that receives bright indirect light all day, it will be forgiving. You can also move your spider outside to your porch, deck, or balcony provided it’s semi-shaded (though they like a lot of light indoors, they can get pretty burned in direct sun outside, so keep them protected). Spider plants enjoy temperatures in the 60s and 70s and a bit of humidity, so spring to early summer is a great time to have them outside for some fresh air, especially if that air tends to be a little on the moist side in your area. You can replicate this humidity inside by giving them a light misting every now and again. To encourage healthy growth, flowering, and plantlet production during active growth periods, fertilize your spider with a basic houseplant fertilizer every month. As summer starts winding down, you should reduce fertilizing and watering to once a month. It is important that you keep your spider pruned up so it stays looking nice. Any brown, damaged, yellow, or yucky looking growth should be trimmed off at the base of the plant with clean and sharp snips. If your plant becomes laden with plantlets, go ahead and trim them off to keep it tidy.

Spider plants, though generally very tough, do have problems from time to time, but they are easy to diagnose. One of the most common is browning of the leaf tips. Typically, this is caused by the water you’re adding to the soil. Spider plants are known to react negatively to chlorine, fluoride, and other salts that may be in your tap water (or in your fertilizer if you are applying too much or too frequently). These chemicals build up in the soil with repeated watering, so every so often, you may want to flush the potting mix with water to rinse away salt build-up. This is especially true if you’re keeping your spider in a basket without drainage holes (not the best idea for drainage and chemical build-up reasons—you should probably put holes in the pot or repot). To limit this damage in the future, try and use only distilled water for waterings. You can collect rainwater, or you can distill your own water using a metal pot and lid, a heat-safe glass mixing bowl, tap water and ice. To distill your own, half-fill the pot with water, float the bowl inside of the pot on the water (don’t allow the bowl to touch the bottom of the pot), and put the pot on the stove. As the water gets hot, place the pot lid on the pot upside down, and put ice cubes in the lid. Distilled water will condense on the underside of the lid and drop into the mixing bowl. Cool this water to room temperature before using it to water your spider. Another frequently made spider plant mistake is overwatering. You’ll notice a lot of yellowing when this happens. Make sure you’ve got good drainage, and that you aren’t watering until the potting mix feels dry to the touch. All-over leaf browning, drying, and dropping can be caused by water deprivation, too much heat, too much cold, too much sun, or no sun at all. Most of this can be avoided by keeping your plant indoors at a comfortable room temperature, keeping it in a window that receives at least a few hours of light, and remembering to water when the soil becomes dry. But, if you mess up on a few of those factors, all is not lost. Simply trim off those brown crispy parts and do it better next time.

Lastly, we’d be remiss if we didn’t come back to those baby spiders. The classic joy of the spider plant is propagating those miniature spider plants. If you would like to start a spider plant family, select the biggest, nicest plantlets for repotting. Look for the ones that have formed roots. With clean sharp snips, free the plantlet from the stem and pot it in a well-draining potting mix. Some people choose to suspend spider plantlets in water for a few days to grow out the roots, but this isn’t necessary on a good sized plantlet with decent roots. If your “mother” spider has not produced plantlets yet, you will need to be patient and provide it with lots of bright indirect light to encourage it to grow. Spider plants will not send out plantlet shoots until the mother plant has fully matured, so you will just have to allow your plant to grow until maturity is reached. This will also allow time for it to become cramped in its pot—root-bound spider plants will produce plantlet shoots quickly (this is the spider’s way of saying, “well, it’s been real, but I guess it’s time to find somewhere else”). When it does eventually send out shoots, you will be rewarded with tiny white star-shaped flowers that resemble little lilies. 

Photos:

Chlorophytum comosum Variegatum:  linveggieCC BY-SA 3.0

2006-11-19Chlorophytum08-03:  WildfeuerCC BY-SA 3.0