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What is a Piggyback Plant?

J.M. Densing
J.M. Densing

The piggyback plant is a relatively easy to grow plant that is commonly kept as a houseplant, or in shady garden areas. Its scientific name is Tolmiea menziesii, and other common nicknames include "youth on age," "mother of thousands," "thousand mothers," and "pickaback" plant. The piggyback plant is a perennial plant, meaning it will come back each year. It has attractive foliage, and the unique ability to multiply by growing tiny new plants on the leaves. This feature of baby plants growing on the mother plant is where many of the nicknames come from.

The piggyback plant is a low-growing plant, with much of the stems remaining underground in the soil. The leaves are fuzzy, shaped like hearts, and have rough jagged edges. Large veins give the leaves a textured appearance like that of a quilt. The color of the leaves can range from dark to very light shades of green. At times the leaves have several shades together, giving them a speckled look.

The piggyback plant usually only flowers when grown outside. When it flowers, blossoms grow clustered on a long upright stalk. Common flower colors are white, lavender and brown.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

Growing in the wild, the piggyback plant is found in western North America, ranging from northern parts of California all the way to Alaska. It grows best in a cool, humid climate, and does not need much sun. It's frequently found growing in forests in the shade of the trees, and can spread out over large areas.

When cultivated, the piggyback plant is most often used as a houseplant, or as a garden perennial. It’s a very tough to kill houseplant that can tolerate a large variety of conditions. It's ideal in homes where there is a shortage of natural light since it doesn't need much sun, and can survive short periods without water. In gardens it is commonly used as ground cover for shady areas and in containers or hanging baskets. The leaves are evergreen, with new growth covering the old before it gets too bedraggled.

One of the most fascinating features of the piggyback plant is its reproduction method. Tiny baby plants, often called plantlets, grow on the mother plant. The plantlets grow directly on the mother plant's leaves, at the base of the leaf called the petiole, and along the ground on long stems called runners. When the little plantlets touch soil, they will rapidly grow root systems and establish as independent plants. In this way one mother plant can reproduce itself countless times. Traditional reproduction via seeds also sometimes occurs.

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