The almost forgotten Stephania erecta is having a huge comeback and with good reason. The overall appearance of the Potato Plant is elegant, delicate, and whimsical. The contrast of potato-like bulb and dainty, captivating green foliage is exquisite.
It’s a little confusing getting a Potato Plant for the first time because they are sold as bare tubers – no leaves and no roots. It’s just a potato-blob that you put in a pot, and then what? Getting Stephania erecta to sprout isn’t complicated, but it is particular and takes a bunch of patience.
Stephania Erecta Origin and History
Stephania erecta, also known as Stephania pierrei, is from Thailand, where it grows in sparsely vegetated forests. S pierrei is actually the updated scientific name, but it is still most often sold under S. erecta. It was first described to science in 1922 by the British botanist William Grant Craib.
In its native habitat, the Potato Plant grows in red soil with high aluminum oxide deposits. The tubers are buried completely in the ground, with only the stalks visible. Indigenous people gather them for medicinal use and also to eat.
Growing Potato Plants in a home is vastly different from how they grow in the wild. They aren’t difficult to grow, but definitely unlike the care for most houseplants. Stephania plants are perennial vines in their native habitat but are deciduous in an indoor environment.
At first, the Potato Plant looks just like a potato in potting soil – friends might question your sanity as you tend your potato. But, soon, they’ll see why this plant is so adored. The caudex (the woody bulb that resembles a potato) sprouts multiple green, slender stalks topped with fanciful shield-shaped leaves.
The leaves aren’t just shaped by shields; they also have prominent white veining that looks like they were drawn to create a family crest. Maybe the veining is the crest of the Stephania family?
While Stephania erecta has been around for a while, it wasn’t easy to find and very expensive. In its native habitat, it is vulnerable due to overharvesting and habitat destruction.
How To Prepare and Pot Stephania Erecta
Potato Plants are sold as tubers – they have no roots and no leaves. The tuber needs to be prepared and potted up before it begins its journey to sprouting. Sprouting takes anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months. Waking up the tuber first and then giving it lots of humidity will speed up the process.
- The key to successful sprouting is increased humidity.
- Use a germination dome or an unsealed plastic bag to cover the tuber.
- Soak the bottom half of the caudex in warm water for 24 hours. This will wake it up. Make sure the node is facing up (the node is the small circle on one of the flattened ends)
- Pot up the tuber in a gritty cactus potting mix (see specifics under soil heading)
- Fill the chosen pot with the cactus potting mix.
- Place the tuber on top of the mix. The most crucial aspect of potting is not burying the tuber too deeply. A buried caudex is more likely to suffer from rot.
- You can bury the tuber lightly in the soil mix, ¼ of it under, but you don’t have to.
- Place in a location with bright shade (indirect light)
- Water the medium thoroughly. It should be moist but not soggy.
- At this point, you can continue like this and wait for the plant to sprout. Or, you can encourage it a bit with a humidity tent.
- Place tuber inside the plastic bag or germination dome.
- If using a bag, make sure one side is slightly open for airflow.
- Check the soil for moistness every week. Mist as necessary to keep it lightly moist.
- In approximately two weeks, the tuber will sprout. Some are quicker; some are slower. It may take up to 3 months – just be patient and keep the climate humid.
Stephania Erecta Care
In this section we cover important Stephania erecta care topics such as watering, lighting, humidity, re-potting, and more.
Stephania erecta is on a different schedule than most plants. It will not have foliage year-round. It is deciduous, which means it will lose its leaves and enter dormancy. This dormancy usually happens during winter, but it can happen at other times if the plant is stressed out or not getting enough water or light. In the spring, it will come out of dormancy on its own.
Sometimes, Stephania erecta decides not to go into dormancy in winter. The foliage keeps growing and never drops – this isn’t common, but it can happen. If it happens to you, just go with it. Don’t force the plant into dormancy – it’s happy and doing its own thing. Continue care as usual, and it will enter dormancy when it’s ready.
Stephania erecta plants at the height of their maturity reach 3 feet tall. It takes a long time to get there, though. These are slow growers. It may take 20 years for the tuber to reach maturity and achieve that foliage height. S. erecta tubers grow up to 7 inches wide.
A Stephania erecta will enter pseudo-dormancy if neglected for a while. This dormancy happens outside of the standard “winter time” rest. The tuber isn’t dead; it’s just resting and reserving its energies. Provided with the proper conditions, it will resprout.
Resume the regular watering and feeding, and after a bit, sprouts will emerge. It may take up to a while; that’s normal. Stephania erecta often blooms with tiny yellow flowers when it comes back from dormancy.
Bright shade is the only thing the Potato Plant can handle before it sprouts. Think of a forest that is mostly shaded but has light filtering through the leaves of tall trees. This is what you want to replicate. This is only for the time before foliage develops.
After it sprouts and is well-rooted, Stephania erecta does well in a spot with bright, indirect light. A few feet away from a window is ideal, with blinds or a sheer curtain to block the harshness of direct rays.
Potato Plants get sunburned very easily – the tuber itself gets sunburned, not just the leaves. Once this happens, the damage is irreversible.
A plant receiving the proper amount of sunlight has large green leaves and short, erect stems. If the stems are long and the leaves are small, it is not getting enough light. Insufficient light may lead to weakened health, so it’s essential to have the right balance.
Only water when the top half of the soil medium is dry. Be very careful about not overwatering. This is one houseplant that will not tolerate that. But don’t neglect it either. Check the soil’s moistness every week to ensure it’s at the right level.
In fall or winter, the leaves will start to yellow and drop off. This is the plant moving towards its seasonal dormancy. When this begins, reduce watering until it’s just once every 3-4 weeks. Once all the leaves have fallen off, stop watering.
Always water with tepid water, so the roots don’t get shocked by too hot or cold water.
Temperature & Humidity
The ideal temperature range for Stephania erecta is between 60-80F. High humidity, over 60%, is best, especially for sprouting.
Soil & Pots
A cactus potting mix is ideal for the Potato Plant. Do not use regular houseplant potting soil mix. This plant likes a gritty, sandy mix that won’t get soggy. Since Stephania erecta grows from a swollen bulb, it is susceptible to overwatering and rotting from absorbing too much water. A soil mix that retains a lot of water will kill the Potato Plant.
Use a pot that is wide enough to fit the tuber and still has a gap at the edge, so the bulb isn’t touching the pot sides. The container must have drainage holes, so water doesn’t collect at the bottom and rot the tuber and roots. This is a common problem with tuber-based houseplants.
Add a cactus fertilizer every 4-6 weeks during the growing season. Do not add fertilizer in the winter. It is imperative that the Potato Plant be allowed to rest, have a dormancy period.
You can trim off the dead or dying foliage at the end of the growing season or leave it there. It’s up to you.
This is a slow grower, so you’ll only need to repot once every 3-5 years. Move it into a pot the next size up, and the root will expand to fit it.
Stephania erecta is toxic to animals, so keep it away from pets.
Pests and Disease of Stephania Erecta
Here are a few common pests and diseases to look out for when keeping Stephania erecta:
Root rot is a serious problem with Stephania erecta. Wet tubers that are never given a break will develop root rot, which is almost always death for the plant. Always make sure that the top half of the potting mix is dry before watering to prevent this problem.
Spider Mites, Aphids, and Mealy Bugs
Like with all houseplants, Stephania erecta can suffer from pests and bugs. The insects are tiny, and infestations happen fast. They aren’t a significant issue until they become an extensive infestation. Always treat pest issues as soon as you see them.
The best treatment for all of these pests is regular applications of a neem oil solution. Mix two teaspoons of neem oil with one teaspoon of dish soap in a quart-size spray bottle, then fill the rest with water. Shake it well and spray the entire plant, being careful to get the leaf undersides, stems, and soil. Repeat every 5-8 days, as needed.
Here are a few of the most common questions that we get about Stephania erecta care:
Why are the leaves on my Stephania erecta yellow, curled, and wilted?
Yellow wilted or curled-up foliage is a sign of underwatering. Check the soil medium; if it is dry, water thoroughly.
What is causing the foliage of my Stephania erecta to turn brown?
Brown leaves, stunted growth, and wilting foliage are signs of overwatering. This is potentially a big problem, as it may mean the tuber is rotting or rotten. Unfortunately, if the tuber is rotted, this isn’t anything you can do to rescue it.
If just the foliage is affected when you discover the issue, immediately put the plant somewhere with more light to dry it out – still not direct sunlight as that’s too harsh. But, put it somewhere brighter than previously, and hopefully, it can recover. Also, hold off watering.
Why did my Stephania erecta drop all it’s leaves?
This is normal and natural. S. erecta is a deciduous plant, which means it drops its foliage in winter and goes into dormancy.
Will my Potato Plant flower?
Yes, it should! Flowers appear in spring before new leaf growth. They are tiny, yellow, and stay for 1-2 months. They don’t always show up but usually do.
Why is my Stephania erecta only producing flowers and no leaves?
Be patient; it will. If the plant is flowering, it is happy. In its own time, it will sprout leaves. Remember, plants are not here to meet our deadlines or follow our timelines; they will do their thing when they’re ready. A flowering plant is a healthy plant; leaves will come.
My Stephania erecta arrived dried up with dead sprouts. What do I do?
It’s fine! This is a tuber-plant; it is just dormant. It dies back and resprouts every year. Follow the instructions at the beginning of this article for potting your Potato Plant, and soon, or not so soon, you’ll see new growth.
If you’re trying to expand your patience levels, Stephania erecta is the perfect plant. It’s proof that careful tending and patient waiting bring wonderful things. It will all be worth it once it sprouts with those delicate, elegant leaves.