Madagascar Plants (2007)

PhotoBy Pam Schnebelen (November 2007)

As this month’s meeting program is about Madagascar, it is timely to talk about Malagasy succulents. Madagascar has an incredible richness of plant life to offer collectors of the weird and wonderful.

Euphorbia platyclada was the first Malagasy plant to enter my life. Popular for its bizarre pink (!) stems, it otherwise resembles some of the pendant rhipsalis found in the New World. Easily propagated from stem cuttings, this inexpensive plant is often grown in a hanging container. It is a sure conversation piece and a must-have for every collection.

The small Malagasy euphorbias are everyone’s favorites: E. capsaintemariensis, E. ambovombensis, E. decaryi var. spirosticha, E. francoisii, and E. tulearensis. They have small, rough-yet-delicate stems and prolific flowers. Like most plants from Madagascar, they become house plants during the winter. Even though they are dormant then, they still require regular light watering. Some of these are geophytic, so their bases can be raised for artistic effect.

When it comes to drama, nothing can top the baobabs, genus Adansonia. Of the eight species of baobab in the world, six of them occur only in Madagascar. While none of us in the U.S. Midwest will have a mature baobab in our future, these plants can be kept small in containers. They are very malleable, responding well to the plant torture that produces an interesting bonsai presentation.

The southwest corner of Madagascar is a special habitat called the Spine Forest. It is on my list of must-visit habitats – a hostile land with extreme plant life. About 95% of all species found in the Spine Forest exist only in Madagascar. In July, we discussed one group from there, the family Didiereaceae. Genera in this family include Alluaudia, Decaryia, Didierea and Alluaudiopsis. These are among the few Malagasy plants that winter in my cool greenhouse. I keep those plants very dry in the winter and very wet in the summer.

The genus Pachypodium was Plant of the Month in October. From the squat and difficult P. brevicaule to the treelike and easy P. lamerei, this genus has a Malagasy plant for everyone. Of these, only P. lamerei winters in the greenhouse.

No discussion of wonderful plants from Madagascar could be complete without talking about Operculicarya. Fairly common in collections is O. decaryi. Before he moved to Washington, HSCS member Bob Harris showed a superb O. decaryi specimen in a formal upright style. A show stopper, it frequently took the Best Succulent Award at the society’s annual shows.

This Operculicarya species requires full sun and moderate water. Easily reproduced by cuttings and quite malleable, it is a good intro plant for bonsai work. Other Operculicarya species are now coming into this country, but their cost puts them in the Obsessed Collector category.

With 10 families and 260 genera of plants endemic to Madagascar, this article could go on and on. From aloe to zygosicyos, each plant has its own set of bizarre characteristics and an interesting story to tell.