If you’re looking for drama in your houseplant collection, alocasia — the African mask plant — will bring it. Just look at those bold, distinctive veins and unusually shaped leaves — arrowhead or heart shaped, curly edged or flat. My faves are the deep green glossy ones, but they also come in bronze, blue-green or purple, some with red undersides and some with a velvety texture.
The plant’s botanical name is Alocasia macrorrhizos, and it belongs to the Araceae family, along with calla lilies, caladium, dieffenbachia, and monstera. (You can see the similarities, though the alocasia is arguably the showiest in the family.) Alocasia is a sub-tropical plant, from Asia and Eastern Australia, where it grows on the forest floor, its large leaves helping it soak up the sunlight.
Large varieties — like elephant ear — grow leaves that can reach three feet in length. You may have seen or grown elephant ear in a garden or outdoor container. They’re only hardy in zones 10 and 11, though, so in most areas they’re grown as annuals (dug up for the winter months and replanted in the spring).
There are plenty of smaller varieties (from 6 inches to several feet tall) of alocasia that make good houseplants. Here’s how to take perfect care of one:
Alocasia houseplants thrive in bright, indirect light. They can survive with less light, but they won’t grow as well. Don’t put one in a south window with no curtain, though, or the leaves will burn. Likewise, if you bring it outdoors in the summer, be sure to find it a shady spot.
Native to the subtropics, alocasia of course prefer things on the warmish side, say 65 to 85 degrees. Keep your plant out of cold drafts and avoid sudden changes in temperature.
Alocasias like to be watered consistently, but they don’t appreciate wet soil. So:
- Let the top few inches of soil dry out between waterings. But don’t let it get bone dry and then soak it — that’s stressful for alocasias.
- Make sure your pot has good drainage. Don’t let the soil get soggy.
- After watering, empty any water in the saucer; never let the pot sit in water.
- Cut back on watering in the winter when the plant enters dormancy (it’s not growing). Don’t let it dry out completely, just water it a bit less.
While they’re sensitive to too much water in the soil, alocasia leaves do appreciate humidity. Here are some options for increasing the humidity for your alocasia:
- Lightly mist the leaves every few days (don’t drench the plant, though).
- Sit the pot on a pebble tray. To make a pebble tray, simply sit the pot on a tray filled with pebbles and then put water in the tray — not enough to reach to bottom of the pot, just enough to humidify the air.
- Place the plant in a room that has a humidifier or tends to be humid, such as a bathroom or kitchen — or place a mini-humidifier among your alocasia and other humidity-loving plants.
- Keep your alocasia away from heat vents and air conditioners.
Once a month from spring through fall will do it for fertilizing your alocasia. (Any organic houseplant fertilizer is fine.) Alocasia grow fast in the summer and slow down in the winter, so let them rest then.
If you provide your plant with enough nutrients, it may bloom for you. But honestly, the spathe flowers they produce aren’t nearly as impressive as the leaves!
Repot your plant using a pot that’s just an inch or two bigger than its current pot. And don’t be in a rush to repot your alocasia; it enjoys being just a bit rootbound. Use fresh, well-draining soil.
You may want to divide the tubers when you repot your alocasia, to keep it a reasonable size for growing indoors. (Alocasia grows from tuberous rhizomes, rather than roots. These tubers store energy for the plant.) Dividing the tubers is an easy way to create alocasias to pass-along and share, too.
All houseplants benefit from being tended regularly. When you water your alocasia, take a minute or two to look it over. Trim off any yellowing leaves and turn the plant to encourage it to grow evenly on all sides. Dust those big leaves once in a while.
If you see any signs of pests, such as spider mites, mealybugs, scale, or aphids (you’d spot the little bugs or webbing on the undersides of the leaves, or the leaves might be sticky), isolate your plant from your other houseplants and wash the leaves with soapy water followed by clear rinse water. (Because alocasia are prone to housing some of these critters, you may want to proactively spray your plant with soapy water once a month or so.)
BTW, if your alocasia isn’t looking the best, don’t give up on it. Some yellowing of old leaves is normal. In fact, the plant will shed its old leaves and devote itself to growing new ones regularly. Alocasias often make a surprise comeback after their owners think they’ve had it! If your plant is looking awful, repot it, give it a new location, and water it carefully. The plants’ tubers may reward you by sprouting new leaves with their stored energy.
Should I stake my alocasia?
Most healthy alocasia plants don’t need to be staked because their stems are strong (though slender). You can tie your plant up to a stake if it’s looking droopy — but try to get to the bottom of the problem, too. Make sure it’s getting enough light and the right amount of water. Repot it if necessary. You can still stake it while it’s recovering.
Note: Alocasia are toxic (they can cause stomach and mouth irritation and maybe vomiting), so keep pets and children from nibbling on them!
If you’re in the market for an alocasia, check out the options at your local plant shop. Or visit Etsy, where a huge variety are available at a good price. (Keep in mind that alocasia grow quickly, so don’t hesitate to buy one on the small side!) Even if you’re not in the market, it’s fun to look at all of the varieties. Here are just a handful:
Do you have an alocasia? What variety is it and how is it faring? Any tips to share with us on its care?
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