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Click on the video above to hear how to pronounce the word
At a Glance:
- Botanical Name: Dieffenbachia spp.
- Common Names: Dieffenbachia, dumb cane, mother-in-law’s tongue
- Herbaceous perennial (usually grown as a houseplant)
- Partial shade; Bright, indirect light
- Easy care, low maintenance
- Moderate watering
- Humidity level: moderate to high (best in high)
- Expected size: up to 3-10 feet at maturity
- Leaves grow to about 20 inches in length
- Time to maturity: approximately 3 years
- Fragrance level: none apparent
- Soil Type: Peaty, well-drained
- Soil pH: 6.1 to 6.5
- Flower color: white
- Outside hardy zone: zones 10 to 12 (USDA)
- Native to the Caribbean, South America
- Poisonous (see note below)
- Excellent at improving air-quality
In fact, due to its air-purifying qualities, Dieffenbachia makes a great houseplant for homes with children and pets (if kept out of reach, of course!) and also for the elderly who may benefit from the air quality and also its gentle beauty. But, for more plants that promote healthy indoor air, please read our article here.
However, if you would like to consider only plants that are safe for children and pets, read here.
The Dieffenbachia genus includes a large group of beautiful tropical perennial species. However, the ones most commonly grown in cultivation are D. sequine, D. oerstedii, D. maculata, and D. amoena. Several Dieffenbachia species have recently been given different names. (see information below) Therefore, you may note some confusion on the naming of different varieties. Collectively, they are generally known as dieffenbachias or dumb canes.
Varieties of Dieffenbachia
Of the many species of Dieffenbachia, only a few are commonly available as houseplants.
- D. seguine is the most popular Dieffenbachia species, a native of Brazil with clusters of large ovate leaves with green margins splotched with yellow or cream color. It can grow as tall as 10 feet.
- D. maculata (formerly known as D. picta). Good cultivars include ‘Perfection’, with intensely variegated 8-inch leaves;
– ‘Rudolph Roehrs’, with fully yellow leaves with ivory splotches; and ‘Superba’, with thicker leaves and white variegation.
- D. amoena is a large, 6-foot plant with 20-inch leaves. One notable cultivar is ‘Tropic Snow’, which has smaller leaves and more variegation.
A very easy-care plant, Dieffenbachia ‘Camille’ decorates many homes. And, while they prefer a shady spot, they need filtered light. Dumb Cane tolerates bright light for short periods. However, too long a duration damages the foliage. This evergreen perennial prefers high humidity. If your home is dry, consider adding a humidity tray with a layer of stone or gravel-covered with water.
Dieffenbachias feature pointed, ovate leaves in a variety of combinations of green, cream, and white colors. Indeed, a large, well-grown dieffenbachia can reach 10 feet, with leaves 20 inches long. However, the plants will rarely reach this size in typical indoor conditions.
Flowering happens occasionally in the houseplant and with no apparent seasonality. However, when the flowers appear, note that they come on erect spikes that are surrounded by cream to green spathes. Though rare in our homes, these flowers occur frequently in those in the native lands.
The common name, Dumb Cane, refers to the plant’s poisoning effect. If ingested, it causes a temporary inability to speak. All parts are poisonous by ingestion, and sap may cause skin irritation.
How to Grow Dieffenbachia
Dieffenbachia grows best as an indoor plant in bright, indirect sunlight. Plant it in fertile, well-drained potting soil with a high peat content. It will do best in high humidity. One way to provide this is to place the pot on a tray of pebbles that is kept wet.
Dieffenbachia plants appreciate bright light during the winter months. During the growing season, the plant prefers dappled shade or indirect light. Too much or direct light will be detrimental to the plant.
Use a fast-draining, well-aerated potting mix. Make sure their drainage is good to avoid damaging the roots. Dumb Cane will not tolerate soggy roots. Therefore, they should never be left with very wet soil.
During the growing season, Dieffenbachias like regular moisture. Do not allow them to dry out completely. A large dieffenbachia might need watering twice a week. In the winter, cut back on the water. However, they still should not dry out completely.
Temperature and Humidity
This plant likes above-average warmth. If the temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit, it is likely to lose lower leaves and appears more palm tree-like. This also occurs if the plant is exposed to cold drafts, Place your plant in a warm, draft-free location.
For best results, feed regularly (every 4 to 6 weeks) with a balanced, diluted fertilizer, such as a 20-20-20. However, it’s best to reduce the amount of fertilizing during the winter months of slower or stalled growth.
Potting and Repotting
Repot annually for best results. Simply lift the plant as a whole, and remove any old soil and dead material from the roots. Then place the plant in a larger container. Watch out for signs of stress on the plant. Note any roots poking out from the surface, crowding, or falling leaves. These signal that the plant needs repotting. However, it is also possible that falling leaves may indicate another form of stress if the plant seems to fit the container. After repotting a dieffenbachia, give it some time to adjust to its new setting. Make sure to wear thick gloves. Remember, this plant contains a milky, mildly toxic sap.
There are several possibilities for propagating a dieffenbachia:
- During repotting in the spring, offsets can be divided (leaving some roots intact) and planted in their pots. If you take this route, make sure not to damage the root systems of the parent plant in the process. Also, use clean tools to avoid spreading disease.
- Older dieffenbachias plants may appear leggy. Propagate new plants from these by cutting off the top and repot in fresh, potting soil with a rooting hormone. In time, new leaves will sprout from the stump.
- Layering offers yet another option. Simply place pieces of the cane horizontally in damp potting soil.
Toxicity of Dieffenbachia
Dieffenbachia contains oxalic acid and calcium oxalate crystals. These cause burning and swelling of the lips, tongue, and throat. In turn, this causes difficulty speaking and swallowing (hence the “dumb cane” common name), and nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. The poisoning, though certainly unpleasant, is rarely fatal to humans. However, you should contact your local poison control agency if any portions of the plant are chewed or ingested.
In addition, note that Dieffenbachia may produce fatal results in pets and livestock. Again, contact your veterinarian if you suspect your pet has ingested or come into contact with this plant. Remember to wear gloves when exposure to the sap is possible. While this plant is relatively easy to grow, it might be considered best for the experienced gardener. Some skill helps to keep it alive and flourishing.
NOTE: If you prefer a low-maintenance pet-friendly houseplant, find them here.
Watch out for common houseplant pests. Some, such as scale and spider mites, cause exterior damage. If just a few pests are seen, they can be simply wiped away manually. However, a more widespread or heavy infestation could require the use of a good, strong pesticide.