OF THE WEEK
Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department
Piggyback Plant, Pick-a-Back, Youth-On-Age, Thousand Mothers, Mother of Thousands
Scientific name: Tolmiea Menziesii
Explanation of scientific name:
Tolmiea - Named for Dr. William Fraser Tolmie (1830-1886), a Scottish physician and botanist who worked for the Hudson Bay Company at Fort Vancouver.
Menziesii - Named for Dr. Archibald Menzies (1754-1842), a naval surgeon and botanist who collected plants in western North America.
Many indoor gardeners know the Piggyback Plant as a durable houseplant that can tolerate conditions that would prove fatal to many other plants. It is especially tolerant of low light conditions. What comes as a surprise to many people is that Piggybacks are fully hardy in our area, and are reliable perennials that will do well in a shady location.
Native to western North America from northern California into Alaska, the Piggyback’s natural habitat is an area with cool, moist soil that is protected from bright sunlight. They commonly grow under the canopy of tall trees. While each plant is under a foot in height, it can slowly spread forming a large colony. When cultivated indoors Piggybacks make dense, full potted plants and nice hanging baskets. When grown outdoors they make a great groundcover.
Piggyback stems grow at or below the soil surface, with the leaves seemingly arising from the soil. Each leaf is broadly star-shaped with 5 – 7 toothed lobes, pubescent, and rough to the touch. When grown outdoors the evergreen leaves become tattered and sad by springtime, but the new foliage quickly covers them. While Piggybacks grown indoors rarely bloom, those grown outdoors flower each spring. The small, greenish-purple blossoms are borne on long stalks and are held well above the foliage. They aren’t particularly showy, and could be described as insignificant.
The most unusual feature of Piggybacks is their means of
vegetative reproduction, which has led to the variety of descriptive common
names for this species. Adventitious buds develop at the base of each
leaf’s blade where it meets the petiole (leaf stalk). From these buds
new plantlets develop, “piggyback” style, on the mother leaf.
The long petioles are weak and bend under the weight of the blade. In
nature when the blade touches the ground, the plantlet quickly develops a root
system and becomes an independent plant. The net result is a large colony
of plants developing from even one individual. Home gardeners can
pick a leaf, push it into some fresh soil, and easily grow a new plant.
The light green leaves of typical Piggybacks are attractive enough, but the variety Tolmiea Menziesii variagata has spectacular foliage. Also known as ‘Taff’s Gold’, it has leaves irregularly mottled with a mosaic of various shades of yellow and green. Each leaf has its own unique pattern of colors, making an eye-catching plant for shady places.
Finally, for those gardeners with deer in their backyards, Piggybacks might be especially attractive. Deer tend to browse on them only as a last resort, when other sources of food are exhausted.
A 'Taff's Gold' cultivar of Piggyback plant growing in one of Union County College's greenhouses.