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What is Tolmiea?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated May 17, 2024
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Tolmiea is a small perennial plant that is native to western coastal areas of North America, from California to Alaska, and that often is found growing wild near redwoods and in other forested areas. Its scalloped leaves sit low to the ground, and it is used by gardeners to fill in flower beds with greenery. These plants are especially easy to grow and are popular as indoor potted plants.

In the wild, tolmiea grows in moist, shaded areas along the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington state, British Columbia and Alaska. Forests, especially those with large numbers of redwoods, are especially favored. The plant usually is found at lower elevations, often near a water source such as a spring or creek. It favors a cool, moderate climate and does not tolerate heat, frost, arid conditions or direct sun well.

At the base of mature leaves, the tolmiea sprouts little plantlets. These plantlets can drop off and take root easily. As a result, the plant reproduces quickly and is able to spread over to cover large areas. This is a method of reproduction unique to the tolmiea, making the tolmiea a popular choice for easy gardening.

Sitting quite low to the ground, with mature plants often less than 2 feet (60 cm) tall and usually of a similar width, tolmeia often is selected by landscapers as groundcover for shaded gardens. As fill-in greenery, their unique plantlets allow them to spread quickly and cover large areas, giving them an added advantage. They grow especially well with other forest plants like the lady fern or fringe cup.

The plant also is able to reproduce by flowering and producing seeds. These tiny flowers vary in color from a purplish brown to white, depending on the plant, and they usually blossom in May or June and remain in bloom until as late as August. Flowers grow on stalks well above the foliage, with stalks growing up to a height of 3 feet (about 1 m) or more. Blossoms appear from late spring until the middle of summer.

Plantlets also are responsible for the tolmiea’s popularity as a houseplant. These plantlets take root quickly without requiring any particular skill or effort on the part of the gardener. Plants growing indoors should be kept out of direct sunlight and given plenty of water.

Tolmiea’s name comes from William Fraser Tolmie, a Scottish-Canadian botanist of the 19th century. The plant commonly is called the piggyback plant, a reference to the plantlets carried by the parent plant. Other names for the plant include Taff’s gold, "youth on age" and "thousand mothers."

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