The Many Mother of Thousands

You’ve probably heard the term ‘Mother of Thousands’ (or ‘Millions’) used for several plants by now. It’s a common name given to the varieties of Kalanchoe/Bryophyllum that reproduce by plantlets called bulbils that form along the leaf margins. Bryophyllum is a another genus given to this type of plant, but it most commonly still referred to as Kalanchoe. Some botanists group Bryophyllum with Kalanchoe.

Kalanchoe gastonis-bonnieri 'Donkey Ears' bulbil
Kalanchoe gastonis-bonnieri ‘Donkey Ears’ bulbil

The most notable difference between the two genera are seen in the flowers and their method of reproduction. Bryophyllum form bulbils and their flowers are pendant, while Kalanchoe reproduce by other methods such as offsetting runners and leaf-tip propagation and their flowers are upright. By these characteristics it makes sense to give these plants a more specific genus, but I still refer to them all as Kalanchoe for simplicity’s sake because the different species cross so easily, it’s already hard enough to figure out who’s who.

I really love Kalanchoes. Shall I count the ways? There are well over 120 species with origins from tropical regions of Africa and Madagascar, which means they do well in the humid heat of Houston and other subtropical climates. In other words, it’s hard to kill a Kalanchoe with too much water or heat. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but my experience has proven them to be some of the easiest and most forgiving succulents, if not the easiest. And that alone makes them a pleasure to keep.

It should be noted that since Kalanchoes are tropical natives, they do not do well in a frost and are among the first to die in a freeze. They’ll need to be covered or relocated to a warm location when temperatures drop too low. Some tolerate more cold than others, so you’ll need to research the species’ requirements. Most enjoy bright indirect or filtered light and the usual low watering regimen.

Kalanchoe gastonis-bonnieri

Kalanchoes come in a wide selection of sizes, shapes, and textures, but for now I’m going to focus on the varieties I have that form leaf bulbils. One type, Kalanchoe gastonis-bonnieri ‘Donkey Ears,’ usually just forms one or two plantlets at the leaf apex, but I’ve seen occasions when they do produce multiple bulbils along the edge of the leaves.

Kalanchoe gastonis-bonnieri 'Donkey Ears'
Kalanchoe gastonis-bonnieri ‘Donkey Ears’

It’s one of my favorite succulents though it is typically monocarpic and the main plant will die after it flowers. In my experience it took several years to go to flower and by then it had given me at least 50 babies to take its place. The flowers are pendant as with Bryophyllum, but it has held on to Kalanchoe as its accepted scientific name.

Kalanchoe gastonis-bonnieri 'Donkey Ears' flowers
Kalanchoe gastonis-bonnieri ‘Donkey Ears’ flowers

Kalanchoe laetivirens

I think one of the most prolific has to be Kalanchoe laetivirens (Bryophyllum crenatodaigremontianum, K. daigremontianum x K. crenatum) aka ‘Big Momma.’ 

Kalanchoe laetivirens
Kalanchoe laetivirens

I thought this was K. pinnata for the longest time but it just goes to show how complex the Kalanchoe world can be. One plant will provide more babies than you will know what to do with. It’s recommended to keep them in pots if you don’t live in a location where a winter freeze will help keep them under control. Some regions consider them invasive so double check before planting them in the ground.

Kalanchoe laetivirens bulbils
Kalanchoe laetivirens bulbils

The neat thing about K. laetiverens is how their container size determines their size. If left in a small pot, they’ll remain small. Turn them loose into your yard or a large planter though and they reach laughably huge proportions. Also called ‘Lao Di Sheng Gen’ in Chinese and ‘Katakataka’ in Filipino, K. pinnata is used medicinally but is also known to be toxic to grazing animals so please don’t assume it’s safe for human ingestion.

Kalanchoe tubiflora

Another favorite of mine is Kalanchoe tubiflora (K. delagoensis, Bryophyllum delagoensis) ‘Chandelier Plant.’ I’ve had one grow to over 4′ tall before it couldn’t support its own height. At that point I simply chopped it into several pieces along the stem and let them reroot.

Kalanchoe tubiflora, macro
Kalanchoe tubiflora, macro

One to three new plants quickly grew  at the cut ends and I just recently had to repeat the process on one of its grandchildren. K. tubiflora isn’t as prolific as K. pinnata but it still deserves its place among the Mother of Thousands. It is a fascinating plant due to the leaf formations and coloration. I really love how the little yard Anoles sleep on the leaves at night. I’ve personally nicknamed it the Lizard Hammock.

Shhh.... Anoles sleeping on Kalanchoe tubiflora leaves
Shhh…. Anoles sleeping on Kalanchoe tubiflora leaves
Kalanchoe tubiflora, 4' tall
Kalanchoe tubiflora, 4′ tall

Kalanchoe daigremontiana

Often confused with K. tubiflora is Kalanchoe daigremontiana (Bryophyllum daigremontianum) ‘Devil’s Backbone,’ ‘Alligator Plant,’ ‘Mexican Hat Plant.’ The leaves are long, thin and V-shaped and the coloration is mottled purple and green.

Kalanchoe daigremontiana
Kalanchoe daigremontiana

Kalanchoe houghtonii
Kalanchoe houghtonii ‘Pink Butterflies’

They cross very easily with K. tubiflora and the most common hybrid is K. houghtonii. You may have seen the ‘Pink Butterflies’ variety of this hybrid. Due to their low supply of chlorophyll, the pink bulbils are less likely to grow to maturity, but I had a theory that those with more green had a better chance and am working on proving it with one I’m growing right now. It doesn’t look pink at this stage but it’s variegated green and white. If it matures, the pink should return when cooler temperatures arrive.

Kalanchoe marnieriana

Kalanchoe marnieriana (Marnier’s Kalanchoe) and K. fedtschenkoi (Lavender Scallops) aren’t nearly as prolific as other Mother of Thousands. K. fedtschenkoi has always produced more bulbils for me than K. marnieriana.

Kalanchoe marnieriana
Kalanchoe marnieriana
Kalanchoe marnieriana flowers
Kalanchoe marnieriana flowers

K. marnieriana is a lovely green-blue with rounded leaves that show a reddish margin, almost resembling Eucalyptus in form and color.

Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi

K. fedtschenkoi has scalloped leaf margins and turns a lovely light purple in the right climate. There is also a variegated type that features pink, white, green, and purple coloration.

Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi 'Lavender Scallops'
Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi ‘Lavender Scallops’
Flowers of Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi 'Lavender Scallops'
Flowers of Kalanchoe fedtschenkoi ‘Lavender Scallops’

Those are the most common Mother of Thousands and the ones I’ve had experience with. I hope seeing and reading about the differences helps you in identification and understanding how to distinguish the varieties from each other. Kalanchoes are amazing plants and while I have many types in my collection, there are plenty more that I still really want to own someday.

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