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Specific Houseplants

China Doll Plant (Radermachera Sinica) Growing Guide


9 min read

The china doll plant was only introduced to domestic settings in the early 1980s. It’s a fairly compact plant that has became popular due to how tolerant it is of the warm, low-humidity air of most modern homes.

It has medium to dark green foliage that’s glossy and almost look oily. The leaves are divided into separate leaflets and are generally thin and delicate looking. The blooms that occur on mature plants are white (but it rarely blooms indoors).

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about planting and caring for the wonderful china doll plant.​ Let’s get started!

Overview of the China Doll Plant

Common NameChina Doll, Emerald Tree, Serpent Tree
Scientific NameRadermachera sinica
FamilyBignoniaceae
LightBright, indirect light
WaterWater when the top inch is dry
SoilBasic potting soil
FertilizerFeed with a well-balanced liquid every 2 weeks spring through fall
Pest and DiseasesMealy bugs, spider mites, aphids, stem, crown, and root rot

All About the China Doll Plant

The China doll plant is known botanically as Radermachera sinica. It is also commonly referred to as the Emerald Tree or Serpent Tree. It’s a member of the begonia and trumpet vine family, evidenced by its compound leaflets.

Serpent trees or china doll plants are native to Taiwanese and Chinese subtropical mountain regions. It’s there china doll plants grow on mountain slopes and grow up to 10 meters tall. The trees have been introduced to habitats in Hawaii, where they are now considered invasive.

Most regions outside china doll plants’ native range are not specialized enough to support the Emerald tree. However, it’s commonly cultivated in greenhouses and as houseplant. It’s a lovely addition to screened in porches, and will thrive in subtropical and Mediterranean climates.

China Doll Plant Care

Caring For a China Doll Plant

China doll plants are pretty hardy so long as you put them in the right environment to start with. Once you have them there, avoid moving them around too much, which can result in leaf drop, even on a healthy china doll plant.

Light and Temperature

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. South and east-facing windows are perfect for growing china doll plants.

China doll plants need at least 64­°F (18°C) to thrive. In outdoor situations, bring your plant indoors when temperatures dip below that degree. Additionally, in temps above 82°F (28°C), the plant will drop leaves. If you live somewhere that fluctuations occur outside that range often, keep your tree inside.

Water and Humidity

These plant like consistently moist soil, but too little or too much water 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. If your china doll plant develops brittle leaves that turn yellow, it not getting enough water.

Too much water is indicated by black colored leaf tips on china doll plants. When new foliage is developing, watering can be slightly increased and decreased again once the china doll plant has become dormant in fall and winter.​ During active growth you want moist soil.

The relative humidity required for growing china doll plants is at least 40%. Most homes remain between 30 and 50%. However, a plant humidifier will ensure your tree doesn’t experience stress from ambient dryness.

Soil

China doll plants like a rich soil that drains well. General moist potting mix can be used. Add sand or perlite if extra drainage is needed. Rocks, perlite, sand, or another type of growing medium placed in the bottom of your pot can remedy poor drainage or overly moist soil.​

Additions of peat moss will help your soil retain moisture, and reduce the amount of water the china doll plant needs. If you plan to add peat, pre-moisten it before planting.

Fertilizer

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 in fall and winter.

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

Pruning Your China Doll Plant

At any time, prune away dead or damaged leaves to the main branch of your china doll. To shape the china doll plant, clip taller woody stems back to about 1/2 inch. Pruning inward growing leaves will make it bushier, and pruning outward growing leaves will make it wider. After you prune, water 1/2 as much as you did prior.

How To Propagate China Doll

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. Stem cuttings can be taken from the stems, but the stem tip cuttings should be from new green growth, not woody stems.

Dip your china doll stem cuttings in rooting hormone and plant them in small pots that filled with some moist, well-draining potting soil. Affix a plastic bag to the top of the pots to retain humidity. China doll plants need high humidity to take root. Place the cuttings in a location with bright, indirect light. Keep the soil evenly moist during this time and within 3-4 weeks they should take root.

Troubleshooting China Doll Plants

China doll plants don’t have many problems with pests or diseases, but there are a few pesky ones that affect almost all houseplants. Let’s discuss those now.​

Serpent Tree Growing Problems

If it gets too hot or cold, your china doll plant will take on leaf damage, with browning tips in cold air, and leaf drop in heat above 82°F. Ensure it remains in a space between that high and 64°F. Proper humidity is important too. Plant humidifiers can maintain a precise 40%, should your china doll plants get crispy in dry conditions.

Do not under or overwater your plant as this is likely to cause conditions where rot can develop for the latter, and leaf drop with the former. Water when the top inch of soil is dry. If you’re not sure whether or not it’s time to water, try using one of these handy Sustee Plant Moisture Meters.

Pests

When it comes to scale insects, the best approach to treatment is spot removal with an alcohol-dipped q-tip. If there are a lot of little round oval-shaped bugs on the underside of your leaves near the stems, you might have scale.​ Some are brown and slimy looking, and others are cottony.

The second of these are mealybugs. Spritzing the china doll plant with neem oil or insecticidal soap after your spot treatment will prevent further infestations.

There are a few fly species that like to attack china doll plants, including fungus gnats. The general treatment for fly infestations is a lower-humidity environment and beneficial nematodes. You can also do a diluted neem soil soak. Follow the directions on the bottle to determine how best to do this.

Diseases of Radermachera Sinica

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.​ Root rot, leaf spot, and varying crown and stem rots are the most common of these.

Most of the time you can stop watering and remove damaged foliage and a root rot problem will pass. However, you may need to repot your china doll plant in fresh soil. If the problem doesn’t cease after this, dispose of it.

Frequently Asked Questions

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 part of your china doll plant has died. Cut it off and new growth will return.

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. Remove them with rubbing alcohol and cotton balls. For a larger infestation, use insecticidal soap or neem oil 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 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. Let the soil dry completely and cut the plant back slightly. However, you may need a new plant.

Q: Where should I put my China doll plant?

A: Place it in an area with at least 40% humidity and bright, indirect light.

Q: Is a China doll plant poisonous?

A: This is a non-toxic plant to both pets and humans.

Q: How often should I water my China doll?

A: Water only when the top inch of soil is completely dry.

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