China Doll Plant (Radermachera Sinica) Growing Guide

China Doll Plant

The china doll plant is a fairly recent houseplant, having only been introduced since the early 1980s. It's a fairly compact plant that has became very popular due to how tolerant it is of the warm, low-humidity air of most modern homes.

It has medium to dark green glossy leaves that almost look a bit oily. The leaves are divided into separate leaflets and are generally thin and delicate looking. The blooms are white (but it rarely blooms in the home).

In this guide, you'll learn everything you need to know about planting, caring for, and preventing pests and diseases for the wonderful china doll plant.​

Overview of the China Doll Plant

  • Common Name: China Doll, Emerald Tree, Serpent Tree
  • Latin Name: Radermachera Sinica
  • Family: Bignoniaceae
  • Plant Type: Tree
  • Origin: China
  • Blooming Time: Mid Spring
  • Humidity: Moderate
  • Temperature: 50-75°F (10-24°C)
  • Height: 30′
  • Color: Green
  • Insects and Diseases: Mealy bugs, spider mites, aphids

Planting

China Doll Plant Care

China Dolls prefer to be somewhat root bound, so be really careful about re-potting them. It’s a plant that doesn’t like change very much either and re-potting it, moving it to another area or drafts may cause major leaf loss.

If you do notice your plant losing most or all of it’s leaves, don't despair! You can save it by trimming all of the stems down to around 1/2 their length and watering less. When the plant experiences a massive loss of leaves it’s very susceptible to root rot.​

Caring For and Cultivating

Radermachera sinica's are pretty hardy plants so long as you put them in the right environment to start with. As mentioned above, if you fiddle around with them and move them a lot, they will respond by promptly dying...so avoid this!

Sun

For best growth, give your china doll plant a lot of bright (but indirect) sun. It needs at least 4-5 hours of sun per day, even indoors. If you don't have a spot in your house that gets that much light, you should consider purchasing indoor grow lights to supplement.

Water

When watering, be careful. Too little or too much can wreak havoc on your china doll plant. The soil should be kept moist, but the roots shouldn't be allowed to sit in water. Water only when the top inch of the soil is dry to the touch.

Add rocks, perlite, sand, or another type of growing medium to the bottom of your pot if the soil doesn't drain well.​

If your plant develops brittle leaves that turn yellow, it not getting enough water. Too much water is indicated by black colored tips.

When new foliage is developing, watering can be slightly increased and decreased again once the plant has become dormant.​

Soil

These compact trees like a rich soil that drains well. General purpose potting soil can be used, add sand or perlite if extra drainage is needed.

The china doll plant should be fed at least twice a month while it’s growth period is active. Use a standard 10-10-10- liquid fertilizer that's diluted by 50%. These plants require less fertilization during inactive growth and feeding times should be decreased.

A slow release fertilizer can be used twice yearly. The plant shouldn’t be fertilized for four months after being re-potted.​

Propagation

Radermachera Sinica

Example of a mature radermachera sinica.

While it is difficult to propagate a china doll plant, it isn’t impossible with a little extra care. Cuttings can be taken from the stems, but the cuttings have to be green and not wood like.

The cuttings can be planted in small pots that you have filled with some moist compost or potting soil. Covering the pots with plastic will help retain the moisture level. China doll’s need high humidity to take root.

The cuttings should be placed in a location with bright, indirect light. Keep the soil evenly moist during this time and within 3-4 weeks the roots should begin to grow.

Pests and Diseases

China doll plants don't have too many problems with pests or diseases, but there are a few pesky pests that affect almost all houseplants, china doll included.​

Pests

Scales

When it comes to scales, the best approach to prevention and treatment is a systemic insecticide. This is an insecticide that gets into the plant's system, so any plant material that scales feed on becomes toxic to them.

You'll know if your plant is suffering from scales if there are a lot of little round oval-shaped bugs on the underside of your leaves near the stems.​

Various Flies

There are a few fly species that like to attack the China Doll, including fungus gnats. The general treatment for fly infestations is a lower-humidity environment and treatment with beneficial nematodes. Also see my guide on treating and preventing fungus gnats.

Diseases

Most of the diseases affecting the china doll plant fall under the fungus category, meaning the treatment is a lower-humidity environment. If the disease is particularly bad, you'll need to get an organic fungicide to clear it out.​

FAQs​

Q. The leaves of my china doll plant are dry and falling off of the stem. Does it need more water?

A. The most likely problem is that you didn't water enough and that part of your china doll plant has died. You won't be able to salvage that section, so cut it off and new growth will come back.

Q. What are these little white balls on my plant? They kind of look like little cotton balls.

A. It's almost guaranteed that they are mealy bugs, one of the most annoying indoor garden pests. If you're lucky enough to have only a few, you can remove them with rubbing alcohol and cotton balls. For a larger infestation, use an approved insecticide and spray your entire plant.

Q. There are a lot of leaves at the top of my plant, but not many below. What's happening? 

A. You'll want to heavily prune back your china doll plant and then move it to a very sunny location. Pruning at least 2/3 of the plant back is a good rule of thumb here.

Q. The leaves are falling off on my china doll plant! What's happening!

A. Whenever you change the amount of light, water, or the temperature in the room, your china doll plants can respond by shedding leaves. It should stabilize once it gets used to the new environment.

Q. I'm watering correctly, but my entire plant is drooping.

A. You may think that you're watering correctly, but if you have this problem on your china doll plant chances are good that the roots of the plant are rotted out. Let the soil dry out completely and cut the plant back a bit. However, it's hard to come back from rotted roots - you may need to get a new plant.

  • Terri Free

    I just wanted to say, this is by far the BEST plant site i have seen, and believe me ive seen several of them…………keep up the awesome work…………..Terri 🙂

    • Indoor Gardener

      Thank you Terri, I really appreciate that a lot!

  • Terri Free

    your welcome….. : )

  • Marcia

    I have had two China Doll plants. They do fine for about a year and all of sudden start dropping their leaves a lot. What could be wrong?

  • Carol

    Ihave a china doll on my screen deck, it has grown to about 9ft tall. straigt up not alot of long branches . Don’t know what to do with it!! It will be too tall to bring in for the winter! Can i cut it off and root the top? Never seen one do that before!! My husband let it groww to see what it would do! Don’t want to hurt it! Thanks Carol

    • B Moody

      Carol your comment is encouraging. Please tell me will I have that results in Northern California. If your in Calif. I will buy a greenhouse in hopes of the same results.

  • Lea

    I have recently purchased some china doll seeds and planted them, but after 3 weeks of not showing any signs of growing, my hubby, who knew how badly I wanted a china doll, bought my a HUGE plant for my birthday. I have some new growth from the plant that I have planted in soil to try to get it to root. In the meantime, some of my seeds have started to sprout. My question is, what should the new sprouts look like from seed? These don’t look at all like china doll leaves, but maybe they are suppose to change??? Thanks…Lea

  • amy

    I have only to say this one thing, “Indoor Gardner”, and I realize that my comment may be construed as ugly. I’m looking for advice from an INTELLIGENT person, and I cannot believe an intelligent person does not know how to properly use the apostrophe. “Lot’s” as in “lots of” is incorrect…it is lots. “It’s” is incorrect when it comes to ownership. It is “its”. It’s is for “it is”. I apologize for my rudeness, but I happened to read this at the wrong time on the wrong day at the wrong time. This should be basic grammar to someone with basic intelligence.

    • sharon

      seriously, when did grammar become a requirement for house plant care?

  • Indoor Gardener

    Hello Amy

    Guess what? My grandmother knows a lot about plants and gardening yet she can hardly spell let alone understand proper grammar. Does that mean she doesn’t know what she is talking about? Does that mean she is not intelligent? No it does not. Apologizing for being rude makes it no less rude. This website is about plant care not about grammar but thank you for taking the time out of your day to give us a grammar lesson.

  • Terri

    Indoor Gardener, I am sorry for Amy’s comment. Im sure your Grandmother is a awesome lady, mine was, and she couldn’t spell very well either, but gee could she ever make a great garden. You take care . Terri 🙂

    • Indoor Gardener

      Thank you Terri, I wasnt angry about what Amy wrote I just wanted to respond, and by the way I did not write this article. I am just the administrator. 🙂

  • Jenni

    I have a china Doll Plant that used to be on a decking and was not doing very well, I cut all the branches off and just left the main stem only, I then planted it into the garden where it is now approx 2 1/2 metres high. It has a perfumed white flower and at the moment, it is in bud. It gets morning sun and afternoon shade and is thriving. I live on the Mornington Peninsula in Australia and it obviously likes the sandy soil.

  • Ginger Stephens

    Help! I brought home a China Doll plant that was delivered for my father’s wake/funeral. I read the instructions and watered it often, however, the leaves shriveled up and I’m afraid it has died on me. I’m thinking it had bugs. Isn’t there a spray concoction of water/alcohol that you can spray on the leaves to rid the plant of those pesky things? I have such a hard time keeping plants alive due to bugs!!

  • Jamie

    Hi there, I had a question for you and would love to get your advice. I just recieved a China Doll plant from a friend for my husband’s grandfather’s funeral and it is beautiful. However, it did not come with instructions so I Googled it and read alot of great tips but still have a problem. It says it needs indirect sunlight if indoors but I absolutely do not have a spot in my home near any windows that I can keep the plant. Every window either has a sofa, kid’s toy or a bed in front of it. I have had the plant for a few days and now the leaves are all falling off and some are shriveling. I checked the soil to see if it was dry and it was so I watered it and now i have it sitting IN (yes IN) my kitchen sink because that is the only area I can put it for sunlight. I guess my questions were if I were to replant this outdoors where would be a good spot if my house faces south and that is where my garden is located. I can not put it in the backyard or the dogs will eat it up. The garden gets lots of direct sunlight for the most part of the day. I just don’t want to kill the plant because it is so pretty and will remind my husband of his grandpa. Thanks

  • Dena

    I just got a new plant and within a couple days I see little brown eggs on some of the leaves..I look online and see what different bugs look like but don’t see these eggs..what are they?

  • muffi

    Amy…this is about plants – not grammar. We’re all from different parts of the country. I am from the midwest. Get used to the languages from different areas and just talk plants.

    • rhonda

      Hey grammer gal that is rude. so u love english some dont care. i know better also but so what can u build a kitchen and paint a portrait ?????

  • Lea

    Hi again…I wanted to update my previous post about my “HUGE” china doll plant/tree that my husband got for me. Over the winter it was dropping leaves and wasn’t looking very healthy. I thought it was a lost cause. I cut back all of the branches that didn’t look healthy and they all re-grew nice bright green healthy looking leaves. The seeds that I planted are still growing, but at a very slow speed.

    To “Amy”…you are right..your comment is construed as ugly! I’d like to ask you just how “correct” your sentence “..but I happened to read this at the wrong time on the wrong day at the wrong time..” is. Did you read it at two “wrong times” or just one?

    To others who have posted HELPFUL information about PLANTS..thanks LOT’S!!! (yes, that is sarcasm so we don’t need another grammar lesson)

  • Marilyn

    Guess what! I am an English teacher and found Amy to be right! Her remark was UGLY! The last thing I was looking for was a summer grammar lesson. However, I was happy to read about my China Doll tree. It’s new and I love it. However, I knew very little about it. Another thing for Amy to realize, if you have to apologize for what you are about to say, DON’T SAY IT!!!

  • Stefanie

    Hi there! I bought my china doll in a tiny 4″ pot about 5 years ago. It is now over 8ft tall and bending up against my ceiling! I have always kept it near but not IN direct sunlight and it has thrived, even times when I was out of town and it lost some leaves I just soaked it and it was fine again. It has adjusted to being re-potted about 3 or 4 times (once because the pot broke). But now I need to prune it back and I have no idea how to. Any advice? Thanks!

  • Sheila

    My newly purchased 4′ high China doll is doing very well; although it appears in need of re-potting as it is still in the plastic container it was purchased in. What size pot should I use to repot and what is the best choice in the material of the container.

    Any info appreciated,
    Thanks

  • Kelsey

    HELP! I have a china doll that i’ve had for a few months it was good at first and lately a bunch of the leaves have been falling off… dying… most of the plant seems good though… anyways i was just pulling off some of the dead branches/leaves to see that there were HUNDREDS of little almost invisible little bugs walking all over it EVERYWHERE in the dirt part of it. WHAT ARE THESE?!?!??! I put it outside for now… can I leave it out there? How do i get rid of these nasty bugs?!?!? THANK YOU!

    • Indoor Gardener

      Try spraying the plant with a mixture of water, garlic and dish washing liquid. The dish washing liquid is basically there to help the water/garlic stick to the leaves.

  • Diana

    My plant is doing well, but the stems once matured grow down. Why is that?

  • My plant was a gift from my husband’s funeral. It is dropping some leaves. I have it in a north window, it gets good light. I watered it once a week and then drenched it and let it drain. That doesn’t seem to be right because it is starting to drop a quite a few leaves. I thought I would water it a couple times a week and try that. What is the best way to water it ?

  • Rhonda

    I want to know when you should replant the china doll into a larger pot
    i just received the plant it came from a florist with no instructions.

  • Rhonda

    I just received a china doll plant and would like to know when it should
    be re potted into a large pot i can not find any information on when or
    how to re pot the plant what size pot, soil to use

  • Margo

    Living in Iowa, my china dolls thrive outdoors all summer but must come in during the winter months. They don’t like the change and loose all their leaves. The past 2 years they both lost all their leaves and I cut them off (about 4″ above the soil) the first year, thinking they were dead! I set them back out in the spring to get rid of them and keep the pots and much to my surprise, they grew… and strong and healthy! Same thing happened the next year, losing all the leaves when I brought them in, etc. When they did, I cut them back and they came back again outside. How can I keep them during the winter months inside?? Help soon, as I’ve just brought them in once again!

  • Regina

    I have had my china doll about four years now. I keep it at work and it has always done very well even with pot changes, pruning, changing offices, a building flood and being completely dried out twice. Lately though it is not looking very well. The leaves are all drying up and falling off. I am thinking I need to prune it again, but my question is.. if I prune into the trunk of the plant that has turned “woody” will it get new growth on that part? It has three main trunks to it and two are wood (with some green up higher) and one is still green down to the dirt. So if I prune down into the woody area of the trunk will it get new growth on the trunk? Hope that makes sense 🙂

  • Shirley

    I have been searching for a place to buy a China Doll, but have not been able to find one. Can someone please help me find a source?

    • Dina Carlson

      Shirley, if you have a local flower shop (florist), or plant nursery sometimes if you ask they can order you one. I know on a few occasions I have done this with the nursery in town.

  • Regina

    Shirley – I got mine at walmart.

  • Hannah

    Shirley-I got mine at home depot!

  • Kylie

    I bought a little China Doll plant at the supermarket in a tiny pot. It was supposed to be an indoor plant, but I put it in the back patio, in the shade. The plant had other ideas, though, as it continually leans toward the sunlight, it seems it wants as much sun as it can get! I’ve moved it into the sunshine, and we’re having a hot, dry summer here in Perth, Australia, so I water it every day. The thing is, it doesn’t look like the plant in the picture. It’s just one tall, skinny stem that has shot up like a beanstalk! It started about a foot high 4-5 months ago, and it’s now as tall as I am. It has plenty of leaves coming off the one central stem and is very beautiful. I’ve had to tie it to a stake so it doesn’t fall over. Is this normal? Should it be more of a bush? Should I re-pot it? It’s still in its original little pot. Will it be okay to stay outside when winter comes?

  • Maria

    I have a China Doll and initially I had mad the mistake of placing it by a window that did not get a lot of sunlight (very shaded, indoor) and the leaves fell off to half of what it had when I first purchased it. I then learned from a friend that it needs indirect sun so I transfered it to a south facing window. It thrived there, it started to sprout and regrow new branches and leaves. But, now it seems to be growing “down” as opposed to “out and up” like it hates the sun so it rather just grow away from it. Although, it still continues to have new growth I am just concerned as to why the branches and leaves are pointing down. Am I doing anything wrong? Maybe too much sun? My friend had suggested that I water once or every other two weeks. I have been doing this but now maybe i”m thinking this is another culprit. Please, can any shed some light in my predicament? Thanks…

  • millie

    please need i have a green house in my back yard. in sourh texas.i was given 30 china doll plants .can they be planted in the yard. please help soon.

  • Kylie

    Maria: I water mind twice a day and it’s thriving, but then it is very hot here. When the leaves start to point down, I water it immediately and they perk back up. I don’t think yours is getting enough water.

  • Daphne O’Donoghoe

    I have had a china doll for years, I am in Brisbane Australia, my tree is about 20 ft. tall, in the garden. Every couple of years it gets lopped, and is more lovely each time. It is pretty much in full sun and completely neglected. It only gets watered by the rain.

  • Jenni

    My china Doll Plant is now above the roof of our house, it is in the front garden, gets early morning sun, then shade for the rest of the day. It has a white flower and has continually flowered since February and the perfume of the flower is very strongly scented. I live on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria Australia. It also gets very little water, mainly only when it rains. It is a real specimen tree in the garden.

  • Kim Stinnett

    How can you tell if one is dead or not? (China Doll) I have had mine for abou 15yrs and now it seems dead. ;-( Any help at all?

  • meagan

    I work in a greenhouse at a college, and the China Doll that we have is large. even though they lose their leaves, do not throw them away, they will grow back. It is common, but dont worry unless you already threw it away..=. When they leaves fall off, check the stems for buds, if you see little buds and formations then it will be okay, It will spring back in the Spring! 🙂

  • sharon mcevoy

    A China Doll was given to me about 23 yrs ago by co-workers as a get well gift. It seemed to do well for a while then had a suffering spell. I stuck it outside thinking it would have to be tossed, but eveb tho we lived in Huntington Beach CA and the patio was shady it survived. The next house was even more hectic as I had 2 jobs and less time to care for it but it had grown quite bit on the shady patio (not much rain but lots of moist air from the ocean a few blocks away). This continued thru three more moves, in/out, in/out. The last place I hade my son-in-law plant it in the front of the condo, it was about 4 or 5 ft tall. I never thought it would get over 6 or 7 ft tall. We planted it ubder the eaves of the one story house and next thing we know it is curling out & up around the eaves. That ‘Doll’ didn’t stop untill she was well over 20 feet. and the flowers do have a most pleasent scent.

  • Megan

    my indoor china doll looks fairly healthy but has powdery stuff on it. its autumn here. temps about 17 degrees C, can you please help me? on the bench around the plant is dusty looking specs.

  • Scott Sandgren

    Great site!
    I have close to 20 China Doll trees, and all are grown outdoors.
    They are grown from the seeds they produce each year for me.
    We actually have 2 that are over 30 feet in height.Right now we have just collected thousands of seeds to get ready to sell.
    Thanks for your website!!