Dioscorea elephantipes are caudiciform plants (a fat, short, swollen stem is referred to by collectors as a caudex, while plants that display this kind of growth habit are called caudiciform plants). They have a deeply fissured surface, resembling an elephant's foot, hence their common name. These plants originate from South Africa (Cape Province) where the caudex can reach rather large sizes of up to three feet high and over 10 feet in circumference above ground. Typically they grow under shrubs and this is a clue to successful cultivation.

Growth is first seen in the late summer when a green stem/twining vine emerges from the top of the caudex. The fact that the plant grows in the winter months is a real bonus when so many of our favourite plants are not in growth.

0218 Fig1 D.elephantipesFig. 1 Dioscorea elephantipes

In addition to this being one of the most attractive caudiciform plants it is also an easy plant to grow. During the heat of the summer this plant enjoys a slightly shady spot where it will not be baked by the hot summer sun. During this dormant period you do not need to water the plant although a very occasional drink does not appear to cause it any harm and, in my experience, usually encourages it to come into growth a little earlier than if kept totally dry in the summer. As autumn approaches I tend to move the plant into a sunny position and increase the watering. Please do not forget to feed your winter growing plants as they will really benefit from the extra nutrients and also remember that plants do not dry out as quickly in the winter as they do in the summer. A cane is often a good idea to support the twining vine which in nature would scramble through the shrubs. At the end of the growing season (spring) the leaves start to turn brown and at this point the whole vine can be removed.

0218 Fig2 caudex

Fig. 2 Dioscorea elephantipes – close up of caudex

This is also an easy plant to grow from seed and can be a very rewarding if you can get hold of the seed which is often available. When I grow this plant from seed I usually push the seed slightly under the surface. After a short time you will see some top growth and a small vine will develop. At this stage do not expect to see the caudex as this will grow well out of sight underground. In my experience the longer you leave it underground the quicker it will develop a larger caudex. You can repot it above ground and when young the skin of the tuber is smooth and a golden brown colour. If you leave the plant where it is it will slowly emerge from its underground hiding place and grow normally.

0218 Fig3 leaves

Fig. 3 Dioscorea elephantipes – close up of leaves

I hope you enjoy growing this plant and can enjoy its very attractive caudex and vine. The flowers are small yellow stars and are sweet if you manage to see them.

0218 Fig4D.elephantipesnursery

Fig 4 Dioscorea elephantipes – plants for sale in a nursery

Ian Thwaites

No part of this article or the accompanying pictures may be reproduced without permission. Copyright BCSS & the Author 2018