I am always intrigued by the common names of plants because they often tell much about a plant’s history or characteristics. Sometimes these names are based on old beliefs or superstitions and often better describe the plant than a proper botanical name can. Most people do not know any Latin and so common names, although not always an accurate way of identifying individual plants, are what we fall back on to put a name to a plant.
One plant whose common name indicates an important characteristic of the plant is the dieffenbachia. Most people might know its proper name, but there are still many people who refer to this plant as “Dumb Cane.” The name indicates the plant’s ability to make someone unable to speak; toxic raphides in the sap of the plant can cause oral irritation, swelling, and in severe cases, the inability to speak for some time. The toxicity applies to pets as well.
I have often had a dieffenbachia in my plant collection and when I was a school principal, I maintained an indoor garden in the foyer of the school and these plants were part of this collection. I experienced no problems, probably because, contrary to the outlandish warnings on some Internet sites, people don’t normally go around munching on the leaves of their houseplants. Not one student took a bite in the eight years that I had this foyer garden! Pets might be more prone than people to dine on houseplants so care must be taken if there are animals around.
Dieffenbachia plants are very useful foliage plants for the interior landscape. They are trees and grow quite tall, so they are useful for creating a vertical dimension. Their large green leaves with white dots or splotches are attractive and easy to clean with a damp cloth. The plant likes its soil kept evenly moist and it appreciates some fertilizer during the summer when it responds to higher light levels by putting forth more growth.
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A dieffenbachia should be planted in a large container or it will soon become top heavy and keel over. If it is not getting enough light, or if it gets quite tall, it will probably require support. When the plant has become too tall for its location, it is easy to cut back. Simply cut each stem back to just above a leaf axil; a new shoot will emerge from the leaf axil and one may emerge from the soil beside the stem as well. Stem cuttings and terminal slips will root readily. It was my practice at the school to cut down the dieffenbachia plants every June when school let out. I took the top metre or so of each stem and stood the cuttings in a bucket of water, discarding the parent plants. Before school started in the fall, I would pot up the slips — by this time the cuttings had developed roots — so it took less than two months for root development. When the students and staff arrived for the new school year they were greeted by brand new dieffenbachia plants — shorter than the ones they had left behind in June but large enough to make the plant display attractive.
There are many new cultivars of dieffenbachia, and some have golden leaves or unusual leaf markings. Others are small plants that do not grow very tall and look good as tabletop plants or as part of a plant grouping. Whichever one you choose, you will find the plant dependable, easy to grow, and adaptable to a variety of conditions. You will also find that “Dumb Cane” is not quite the scourge that it was once thought to be — but I still wouldn’t advise eating it!