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Caudiciform Plants: What is a Caudex?

PimlicoDan
Published on October 26th 2019
9
A vase of flowers sitting on top of a wooden table
When it comes to houseplants, there's no need to be scared by the term ‘caudiciform’.
The caudiciform group of succulents offers some of the most unusual, rare and intriguing indoor plants on the market, and they’re usually pretty easy to look after.
Before we get to the amazing varieties available, let’s break down what the jargon means.
Read more about succulents here:
A close up of a green succulent plant

Succulents

Succulent Plants

What does caudiciform mean?

Caudiciform plants are characterised by the presence of a caudex - a fat, stout stem or root which sits above ground. The word itself comes from the Latin noun meaning 'tree trunk'. They are sometimes referred to colloquially as ‘fat plants’.
A herd of elephants walking across a dry grass field
The giant baobab trees of Africa store water in their thick pachycaul trunks to help them survive the dry season
Whereas many species have a fat, basal stem, others have an overall thickened stem, like the African baobab tree. These plants are called pachycauls.
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Why grow a caudex?

Almost all caudiciform succulents come from areas that have seasonal rains, but are arid and scrub/desert-like the rest of the year, including South Africa and Central America.
They store water and nutrients in their caudex and burst into growth with the first rains, dying down as the growing season ends and drought takes hold.
In this sense, they resemble many flower bulbs in their growth habit.
A close up of a flower garden
The elephant's foot is the most recognisable caudiciform seen today. Here, you can see the swollen stem base. Mature plants can reach upwards of three metres.

Growing at home

Thankfully these plants are mainly low-maintenance succulents and can be easily grown in the home.
Water: Treat much the same as any other succulent by watering freely during the growing season (spring-summer) and reducing as winter approaches.
Some are deciduous and lose their leaves during dormancy (e.g, Dioscorea, Bowiea). These plants won’t need any water until they’re ready to grow again in spring. Err on the side of caution by allowing to drain thoroughly between waterings.
Light: Most like full sun, though a couple prefer light shade, particularly at the roots – see below. In winter, keep evergreen plants in full sun.
Temperature: Keep well ventilated during the summer months and cool during winter. Temperatures around 10°C (50°F) during winter should be fine for most desert species.
A pink flower on a plant
It's easy to see why the desert rose is such an iconic plant of the African and Arabian deserts. It often blooms ahead of the foliage, using its stores for energy.

Troubleshooting

Rotting: The main cause of death for succulents is almost aways overwatering.
In summer, allow the surface to dry between waterings and reduce to once a month (or less) over winter. It’s always better to underwater than over-water.
Weak/unseasonal growth: Usually caused by high temperatures and too little light. Move to a cooler spot away from central heating to a place with some sunlight.
Also watch out for these pests:
A close up of a flower
The gout plant is somewhat of a mix-match with flowers like coral, a sweet potato for a stem and fig leaves for foliage. It is nonetheless beautiful in its own way.

The caudex carnival

Elephant’s foot (Beaucarnea recurvata)
Elephant's foot is the most commonly-seen caudiciform houseplant and is unbelievably easy to grow. The mature stem base looks like an elephant’s foot in maturity but is rounder in youth. A fountain of curved leaves gives this pant the alternative name of ponytail palm. It is also an evergreen.
Desert rose (Adenium obesum)
Few plants can match the beauty of a desert rose in full bloom, particularly when you consider its harsh natural environment. Native to Africa and Arabia, its stunning flowers have also given it the name of impala lily and Sabi star. Often deciduous in winter.
Buddha belly/gout plant (Jatropha podagrica)
An odd-bod relative of the euphorbias, the gout plant's beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Aside from houseplant enthusiasts, beholders include exotic butterflies. The coral/orange flowers set against large leaves attract them in droves. This plant prefers bright light, with a little sun and immaculate drainage. Deciduous.
A close up of a plant
A young Madagascar palm showing leaf and stem details side-by-side.
Madagascar palm (Pachypodium lamerei)
Unusual, spiny and statuesque, the Madagascar palm is becoming increasingly popular in modern homes. Narrow, glossy leaves crown its thick, pachycaul stem and the plant can grow to a few metres in height in ideal conditions. Plants only produce the fragrant frangipani-like flowers when mature. Evergreen-deciduous.
Medusa’s head (Euphorbia stellata)
Not quite ugly enough to turn you to stone, the Medusa’s head euphorbia is certainly not far off. A real collector’s plant, it does look a little like a prickly sprouting potato. Its odd green flowers add to the effect. An evergreen, it requires excellent drainage, full sun and thrives on neglect. Care as for E. obesa, below:
A close up of a flower
E. knuthii is another caudiciform euphorbia and not too dissimilar from E. stellata. Watch out for the sharp spines.
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Elephant’s foot vine (Dioscorea elephantipes)
Another elephant’s foot, but very different in appearance, the young caudex of this plant looks more like the shell of a tortoise. So much so that it was formerly called Testudiaria after the Latin for turtle/tortoise. This relative of the yam sends up vivid green climbing stems during the growing season and prefers its head in the sun and roots (caudex) in some shade, much like a clematis! Deciduous. (Main image).
Climbing onion (Bowiea volubilis)
A bulbous, rather than a caudiciform plant, the climbing onion is often grouped with them. It is a messy, charming plant with a fat bulb that sits atop its pot and sends out foaming, curling shoots which require support during the growing season. Green flowers over the summer give it the alternative name of flowering onion. Deciduous.

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