False Aralia

houseplantlover86(6)September 22, 2010


I was wondering if someone could help me out with my false aralia plant. This is my first plant of this kind, and it needs some work. I�m having issues with it tipping, and the leaf edges curl down, I�m not sure what causes that. I have added a photo of my plant so you can see what I plan to do with it, and hopefully my idea is the right choice for revitalizing a finicky plant.

False Aralia faces a western exposure, gets really great light, but sits about 12 feet back from the window. I water it once every 2 weeks or so, whenever the top gets dry. I am told they like to be wet, and benefit from frequent misting.

False Aralia needs a definite facelift (as it looks a bit goofy right now) and I thought the best way of doing that would be to air layer it, getting rid of most of the bare stem at the bottom. Right now, as you can see in the photo, there are actually 2 plants in the pot. Originally, there were 3, but the later dropped all its leaves and I am told will never grow them back! So I hacked the dead stem all the way down to the soil. Then sometime later, I made the mistake of moving the plant from its established location for a couple weeks (to a less bright location � I guessed perhaps the tipping was due to too much light??) after which the plant dropped some of the leaves (on both stems) in the center, leaving holes of bare stem! I�m sort of uncertain about even changing the plant at all, so I will try to be clear even in my confusion :)

Here are my options; I want to air layer each stem, with the left stem being the tallest.

1. The left stem has the largest bare area without leaves in the very center, so would air layering it in the middle be a good idea? Basically I would be re-rooting the top crown only. BUT, am I correct the rest of that stem would stop growing altogether if I air layer just the top part??

2. Air layer the left stem at the bottom closest to the leaf growth, leaving the bare area alone � sort of dealing with it, haha

As for the right stem, it only has a small bare area in the center, so I was planning on just air layering the bottom portion of the stem. There isn�t much else to do with that one.

Are False Aralias known at all to regrow from the old root system, even after being pruned down? I know draceneas do this, I wish the same could be said for this plant as well!

Or, another option

  1. Root both stem tops, and simply discard the rest of the bottom portions (unless they will continue growing)?

I haven�t purchased any sphagnum moss as yet, since I wasn�t sure air layering this plant is even worth my time�. I am told by a friend who works with plants for a living that False Aralias are notoriously hard to care for! The idea of just letting it go has crossed my mind.

So that is where I stand right now� If anyone has any other ideas, or if my ideas are good or bad ones, please let me know!

Here is a link that might be useful:

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pirate_girl(Zone7 NYC)

I don't know, I'd do more research if it were me. Tho' I'm not new to gardenining, air layering is not a technique I've been able to master. I looked at your member profile & see you're not a newbie either, but ...

Options aside, I think it's the wrong time of year for this, would think it's best going into Spring/Summer, not Fall, when plants are naturally slowing down.

    Bookmark   September 23, 2010 at 9:14AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

HPL - up until the summer solstice, your aralia spent its energy on making leaves and extending stems/branches. As day length went from increasing to decreasing day length after the solstice, internal chemical messengers told the plant to stop growing leaves and branches and start storing energy for the low light period (winter) ahead. Most plants are at their highest energy reserves 2-3 months after the summer solstice, so now is probably a very good time to start an air-layer, though a month sooner would have been better.

I have to ask though, why you are wanting to layer the plant? If you want a more rigid plant that is fuller, you could accomplish that with more light and a single pruning cut on each stem with little risk.

FWIW - 12' back from a west window is probably not enough light to be considered good, and the plant doesn't like wet soil. It does barely damp, to damp, best. If you're watering every 2 weeks and only the top of the soil is dry, your soil is probably inappropriate for this plant, and the container is too large. It's likely that a large portion of the soil is wet at all times, which ensures limited growth and vitality. You can TRY watering in smaller amounts and less frequently to guard against a soggy soil, but with the soil you're using salt build-up from fertilizer and tap water would be assured, so you would be well advised to take steps to keep that from happening by flushing the soil regularly.


    Bookmark   September 23, 2010 at 7:35PM
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Pirate girl, I would agree with you on that!

Hi Al,
My primary reason for wanting to air layer this plant was to eliminate some of the bare spots caused by its leaf drop. I am told over time that false araila will start to expose its stems near the bottom -- that's normal, even under the best conditions isn't it? Especailly if the plant is a bit older -- Not sure exactly the age of this one.

You are right about the soil, it seems to be wet most of the time underneath the dry soil on the very surface. As far as type, I'd venture a guess it consists of whatever you'd find in MiracleGro potting mix -- it seems to have that consistancy to it when I touch it (it's definitely NOT peat). I must be watering too much. I will try watering less. Every so often the leaves will get either yellowed or brown, crispy, and then fall off. I figure that's from either overwatering or underwatering.

The pot itself is a 4" if I'm not mistaken. It's really not all that large in proportion to the plant, which is just over 1'. Would repotting the plant in a MiracleGro cactus/sand/potting soil mix be wise to help areate the soil a bit?

Lastly, is there any other way besides air layering to fill in all the bare spots on false aralia? You mentioned trying "a single pruning cut on each stem with little risk." Does that mean I simply nick each stem to encourage new growth?

    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 12:02PM
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pirate_girl(Zone7 NYC)

Hi again HPL,

Not sure what you'd agree w/ me on ???

Don't know what you think this plant is supposed to look like, I don't see a problem, it looks fine to me.

While I've never grown it myself, there was a large pot of it in my parents' home which got moved around pretty often as it sat in front of a fireplace. I never got the sense of it being thought of as fussy.

No, I doubt cactus soil & sand would help, likely worsen things & impede drainage. MG mixes often DO have peat (you may not know) which is what helps keep it so wet so long. Also lately they've been adding wetting agents.

I think maybe I'd add 30% perlite or so to that mix to help it drain faster & be airier.

I believe it's the nature of this plant to drop its lower leaves over time. The one I grew up w/ was in a metal cauldron-like pot as its outer pot, the base of the stems could have been bare, the sides of the outer pot were high enough that I couldn't see them. Also Mom had many stems in the pot, I think that helped make it look full.

Maybe consider pruning as Al suggests or get an outer pot high enough to conceal the lower stems.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 4:49PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

HPL - If you click on the following embedded link, you'll find a thread where I took some photos of two top reductions of a China Doll (Radermachera sinica).

I offered the link because I get the sense you might need some visual assurance that if you chop the top half of your tree of, the bare spots will fill in. To make things easy to understand, think of the roots as sending up water and nutrients for the top of the tree to use to grow. Trees only grow from areas called apical meristems. These are the growing tips of branches. If you remove the growing tips, the roots have nowhere to send the water and nutrients because you've eliminated the growing point(s), so it activates dormant buds behind the pruning cuts. You can see how that happened with the tree I worked on in the pics. This is what will 'force' the tree to fill in the bare spots.

If you feel like it, you can read about some tricks to help you deal with water-retentive soils by following the link. If you prefer, we can start a more detailed conversation about how to get the most out of your tree & keep it as happy as possible within the cultural limits you have to work with.


    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 9:18PM
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Pirate girl, my plant looks fine to you?
I am surprised you say this since I can't stand the bare spots !! LOL
I was referring to when you said you don't think now is the best time to be air layering plants. I agree with you, as the aralia is probably slowing down its growth. Sounds like a good idea with the soil...I'll have to get some perlite.

Al, you are greatly scientific! Do you mind if I ask if you are a horticulturalist/botanist?? You seem to know a ton of stuff, but I do a double take and am like ... what is he saying!!? It takes me a moment to process it all. LOL.

Thanks for the info! Since I don't know too much about trees, let me ask for the sake of clarity: if I cut off the growing tips of my aralia, the plant will direct energies to another location along the stem. Does that include the bottom, near the soil line where I have already lost significant leaves? This is the most unsightly part of the plant. You said the plant will activate dormant buds beneath the pruning cut -- but will that also happen directly above the plant's root system???

It seems like most people would not wish to cut back their plants in places where their are areas of new, beautiful growth, but rather leave those intact; removing older areas of stem that have shed all the leaves instead. Isn't that what air layering is used for?

If I DO make the pruning cuts on top, couldn't I root the tops? Also, will the now-cut-back aralia grow its tops back again? How long does something like that take??? The plant has taken more than a year to reach it's current height; I wouldn't want to have a topless plant for the next three years! =)

    Bookmark   September 26, 2010 at 3:54PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Not a horticulturalist/botanist, but I travel in the same circles. I do many presentations and demos/workshops for area gardening communities. Thanks for asking.

It's normal, especially under low light conditions like you usually find indoors, for trees to shed their lower and inner foliage. This happens in nature, too, because the tree is able to 'recognize' parts (leaves/branches) that aren't pulling their own weight. IOW, they are using more energy than they are making. The tree recognizes this as a bad deal, as far as its survival is concerned, and sheds the parts. Before it sheds them, it 'recycles' all the nutrients and bio-compounds it can from those parts, and uses it to grow longer or taller - usually in search for the light that the shed parts weren't getting.

You can trump this natural tendency by fooling with the tree's hormones. If you cut off the growing tips of branches, you greatly reduce a hormone (auxin) that stops dormant buds from activation. This is why your shrubs can be pruned in neat little cubes & balls of tight foliage. Cutting off the tips of branches or stems makes lots more branches behind the pruning cut.

Where the new growth occurs depends on several things. How much you cut off, and how many of the growing points you remove. This is a pretty complicated subject, but basically, the more energy your trees have stored, and the more energy they are capable of making at the time of the chop, and the more you cut off, the greater will be the surge of new growth from back-budding. Right now, you're lacking the 'energy it can make now' part - unless you have very good supplemental lighting. Because you lack the 'right now' part, it's better to wait until next summer to do the hard cutting, but you can prepare for the work now by some light pruning and getting cultural conditions as close to perfect as feasible.

Air layering is used to make new plants. It isn't very effective as a tool to create back-budding until the layer is separated.

You might be able to root the cuttings you take off the top. I'm not familiar with propagating your plant, but I can find out and help you with instructions if you like. It's not that I'm not familiar with whatever method works best.

Once you terminate a branch or stem by cutting off the apical meristem (the growing tip of the branch), the branch can never extend again; but, if you review the way I cut back the China Doll, you can see that I simply took a newly emerging branch and trained it vertically as the new leader. You can't even tell. This technique is used very often in bonsai to make the trunk tapered and look old. It's also useful for correcting houseplants that can't support their own weight because they are starved for light.

Whenever you work on trees, you need to be patient. They don't respond to us being insistent that they hurry up. ;o) They're on tree time & we're on people time, they're different. Chopping the tree at the right time will usually yield a branch you can train to the vertical within a few weeks. Tip-pruning now MIGHT force a branch you can NOW train to the vertical so that when you DO make your chop (just above the new branch), you already have the new leader prepared.

Unfortunately, now is not a good time to do any serious work. Your plant needs its foliage for the low-light winter ahead, but you can tip prune. That is you can remove all the growing points at branch ends, which will force back-budding and more branches.

There are some other cultural things that would be good to pay attention to as well. If you need guidance I'll help you with those issues, once you decide how you'd like to move forward.

Take care.


    Bookmark   September 26, 2010 at 8:26PM
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Thanks for laying it all out for me, I think I am following your train of thought a bit better now. I haven't yet decided what to do exactly -- But I will wait until next season to do anything drastic.

Just one thing I was concerned about (perhaps only a tree novice would mention this, so bear with me): My false aralia (Dizygotheca elegantissima) has only one main stem that shoots completely vertical. There are no additional branches of the same type as the main one, just tiny little 'thin shoots' that end in a leaf (not sure the correct term).

As I mentioned, there are in fact 2 aralias in my plant pot. One of them has a slightly curving stem, probably in an effort to reach more sunlight. As a result it's not perfectly straight -- but the second one is. (Side note: I went ahead and moved the plant closer to the window. It's now about 4 feet back.)

Here's a picture of my type of aralia (it isn't very good, but hopefully you can make out the main stem). I have the false aralia with broader leaves, rather than the very long, very thin variety leaves. The dormant buds appear to be visible along the main stem, essentially areas where a leaf used to be, but has since dropped off. The very top of the stem terminates into 4 or 5 little shoots with a ton of leaves attached, but still no other branches. There are no horizontal branches shooting out anyplace on either stem.

Since my plant only has one main stem and no radiating branches, I don't suppose I would be able to take a new branch and form it to continue as the former? Just let me know if I can take a closer photo of my own plant if it will help!


Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 8:57PM
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Here's another photo...

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 9:01PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

With no lower branches on the tree, you can take off the top now if you wish, which will force back-budding and produce a new leader you can train upward. ..... or Maybe this will help you visualize how bold you CAN be if the timing is right and the tree healthy. I'll sort of show you how we make a bonsai from a nursery tree & talk a little about how it relates to your tree.

This is an American larch I bought at Menard's, on sale, for about $10. It has a 1-1/4" trunk and was about 3' tall when I bought it. Here it is with about a foot cut off the top:

This is what the lower branch structure looked like before I'd done any work:

This next picture represents the initial planning stages. Remember me talking about training a branch to the vertical, even before you chopped off the top?

Here, you can see how I'm planning ahead. Bonsai need a fat trunk, but they need to be short trees. This means that to look natural, the trunk needs to taper rapidly. Next spring, I intend to chop off the trunk just above the two wired branches. If you follow the wired branch on the left that leaves the trunk at a 45* angle, you're looking at the new leader. That branch will be allowed to grow, unpruned, until it is about 1/2 as thick as the trunk, then that will be chopped back, just like the trunk was. If you look even closer, you can see that I've even planned beyond THAT chop and have wired the next trunk segment into place - the very small branch that is wired to move back toward the main trunk line as it is now, before the chop. I'll work with the tree in a big container where it will grow fast, performing a series of chops over the next several years, and then it will go into a pot for finer refinement. There are lots of branches left on the lower trunk purposely. They will grow and feed the trunk, fattening it further, At some point, before they get so fat that the scars left when the branch is removed will take too long to heal, they'll be removed.

If this was your tree, and it had all these branches on it, all you would need to do is take one branch like the one one coming off the trunk to the left (the one with fat wire on it) and tie it to the trunk so it's vertical, then chop the top off at your leisure - preferably in early summer.

Basically, you can take a couple of inches off the top and wait for new branches, or do nothing & wait until early summer when everything will move along much faster - especially if you're able to get the tree outside into open shade, where it might surprise you. Good light and air-movement will go a long way toward stimulating back-budding, even w/o tricking the tree by pruning.

Have you decided how tall you'd like your tree to be? - or if you'd prefer it as a standard (1 trunk) or a multi-stemmed, bushy planting?

I hope that introducing another tree, in the hope it would help you visualize what I was talking about, didn't confuse you.


    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 11:23PM
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I have yet to decide how tall I'd like it to be. I certainly would love a bushier plant, with many leaves and healthier looking foliage (with no more tipping or curling of leaves!). The back budding will help with that I'd guess. My plant dropped a few more leaves today...
I will wait til summer as you advise to do any pruning!
The plant will need all its energy now to carry on for the winter. Other than the aforementioned bare stems, I think false aralia is healthy!

I have actually entertained replacing the 3rd stem that was lost in the beginning (the one I cut all the way down and that dropped ALL its leaves) with a new single false aralia from a garden center. Occasionally you will see them sold as a small houseplant in stores. The ones I saw were the same size as mine originally - about 4-6" in a 4 inch pot. Very dark foliage points to the plant's age, since any newly formed leaves are always bright lime green.

I figure grouping stems together is wise due to the humidity generated by many plants in the same area. However, I suppose that 3rd stem died for a reason, maybe I shouldn't push my luck!

Bonsai has always been fascinating to me, I love the elegance and beauty they showcase. Having them in a shallow pot as a rootbound specimen plant is way cool. I saw a video of some plants at the New York Botanical Gardens - one had a dark brown (almost black) stem and branches with fire engine red leaves. I think it was a Japanese Maple.

Have a good night,

    Bookmark   October 4, 2010 at 10:14PM
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