How To Grow And Care For The Tortoise Plant (Dioscorea Elephantipes)

If you’re bored with snake plants, spider plants, and anything else that’s considered the standard houseplant, and you want something a little more unusual, the tortoise plant should be next on your must-grow list.

These tender perennial plants grow from a cork-like stem that looks very similar to a tortoiseshell, or the foot of an elephant.

At A Glance: What You Should Know About The Tortoise Plant

The tortoise plant, or Dioscorea elephantipes, is instantly recognizable for its enlarged succulent stem, also called a caudex, and in the case of this particular plant, it looks like a tortoiseshell. 

What’s equally impressive is that this stem can reach 10 feet wide in the right conditions. It won’t reach this size as a houseplant, however. The caudex starts off as a globular shape, and cracks with age, forming geometric growth rings.

You may also know this plant as the tortoise plant, elephant’s foot, elephant’s foot yam, turtleback plant, or Hottentot bread. 

It hails from the Dioscoreaceae plant family and can reach up to 6 feet tall indoors in the right conditions, with the caudex reaching 10 feet wide in its natural habitat in the semi-arid scrubland of South Africa.

They can be difficult to source, so the best place to start is with a houseplant retailer.

It’s worth noting that these plants are considered toxic to both humans and animals, as they contain saponins which are dangerous.

Starting Off: How To Grow A Tortoise Plant

Most of the time, the easiest way of getting hold of a tortoise plant is to grow it yourself from seed. 

These plants don’t have a rapid growth rate, and they also have shallow roots, so you won’t need a huge pot for them.

While they don’t need constant care, there are some things you need to know in order to get the best out of these plants, and make sure that they thrive. 

Finding the seeds online is probably your best bet, as not many garden centers will stock them. You’ll need to sow these seeds in the fall, which is an unusual time of year to propagate!

Make sure to cover them in a very thin layer of compost, keeping it damp but not wet at all times. 

Put the container somewhere warm, preferably with a plastic bag or propagator lid over the top, and keep it somewhere bright but indirect.

You will need to be patient with these plants, and it could be a while before you see signs of germination.

Care And Maintenance

Tortoise plants are very easy to care for, and don’t need a lot of attention from you at all. 

But there are some things that you need to know in order to get the best out of these plants, however. Once you’ve got the basics right (and the care for this plant is not complicated, just a little more specific than others), this plant will thrive for years to come.

Sunlight And Position

These plants will absolutely thrive in full sunlight, with as much direct sun as possible. They can adapt to live in dappled shade or indirect light if that is what you have, however.

The tortoise plant needs a minimum temperature of 65°F (or 18°C), and should be kept away from drafts and sources of heat. 

It also helps if you can keep the caudex of the plant in shade, while letting the vines have complete sunlight.

Soil Requirements

While technically a commercial mix formulated for cacti and succulents would do, these plants prefer a little more organic matter in the compost. 

You could use a mixture of both, making sure to add some grit to improve the drainage, and stop these plants from getting root rot.

Watering And Fertilizing Needs

Like most succulent plants, the elephant’s foot is prone to overwatering and root rot, so make sure you let the soil dry out before you water it again. 

Unlike most succulents, the elephant’s foot plant does like fertilizer once a month, and this will help boost its growth. For best results, use a balanced liquid feed, but keep it at about the quarter of the recommended strength.

When you see the plant start to die back and go dormant, scale back the watering, and hold off feeding the plant until it reaches its active growing season again.

Pests And Diseases To Watch Out For

The only real threat to a tortoise plant is overwatering and root rot, especially when the plant begins to die back. You might assume that it wants more water at this point, but it’s actually the opposite.

When the plant goes dormant, the growth grinds to a halt, so it doesn’t need its usual care that it would in its active growing season.

You may also want to be on the lookout for common houseplant pests, which may spread from infected plants to your tortoise plant, such as thrips, aphids, spider mites, and mealybugs.

When To Prune A Tortoise Plant

You only need to cut back the plant when it enters dormancy. You’ll notice when it does go dormant, as the foliage will turn yellow or brown, and the plant will stop growing for a while.

Simply cut off the stem above the caudex with a sharp knife or a pair of secateurs. 

In their native habitat, they will go dormant in summer when it’s incredibly hot and dry, and their growing season is during the wet winter months.

When you grow this plant as a houseplant, it can go dormant at any time of year.

How To Repot A Tortoise Plant

The good news is that this plant grows so slowly that you won’t need to repot it very often. To give you an idea of just how slowly it grows, the caudex will eventually reach 12.5cm in diameter over the space of five years!

When you do need to repot these plants, wait until they are just emerging from their dormant period. You’ll know when the plant is waking up, as it will send a small vine emerging from the caudex.

Be careful not to damage this part of the plant, holding it by a sturdier part when you come to repot. 

Also, don’t be tempted to ‘tuck in’ the plant by pushing the compost down. You’ll want to keep it fairly loose, as this will help the plant thrive.

It’s worth noting that while the caudex of the plant stays underground for the first two years or so, you should not bury the caudex of an older plant. Allow it to sit just above the surface of the soil, letting the roots support it.

Aim to put any top dressing or the surface of the soil to be at the same height as the bottom of the caudex, and this will help lock some moisture into the soil, while helping to guard against the plant sitting in too much moisture.

Conclusion

The tortoise plant is a fantastic and unique plant, sure to grab your attention in any room. While it might look complicated to care for at first glance, it is incredibly easy to look after.

The most difficult part you’ll have with this plant is sourcing an established one in the first place. More often than not, you’ll need to start off a tortoise plant from seed, and this will take some patience.

Don’t give up on the seeds. While they will take a while to germinate, they are worth the wait and the effort involved.

The elephant’s foot plant can live for seventy years or more if given the right amount of care, so don’t be in a rush to see results. Instead, enjoy the journey, and watch it grow with you through different phases of life.

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