How to Plant, Grow, and Care for Bat Flower
Do you have a thing for rare and exciting plants? The bat flower is an incredible plant with some of the most interesting flowers around. Here, gardening expert Melissa Strauss explains how to care for this unique and exciting tropical beauty.
The first time I laid eyes on a bat flower plant, it was love at first sight. I knew my plant collection would only be complete with this weird and wonderful specimen. When it first produced its first flower, I knew that this was one unique plant.
Plant Type Perennial
Species about 20
Native Area Southeast Asia, India, southern China
Exposure Partial sun, Indirect sunlight
Soil Rich, Well-draining
Hardiness Zones 9-11
Bloom Colors Black/purple, brown, white, maroon, green
Season Summer, Fall
Pests Snails, Slugs
Diseases Root rot, mold, mildew
This species is a tropical understory plant. They are native to the rainforests of southeast Asia, India, and China, growing beneath the canopy of larger plants and trees. It is common to find these plants growing on riverbanks in the wild. They love moisture and humidity, making them a great fit for a tropical garden.
Some creative names given to these plants include devil’s flower, tiger’s mustache, bat head lily, or cat’s whiskers. Their unique and unusual flowers are the source of these names and greatly interest the plant-loving community.
The plants can be challenging to find and are rarely carried by conventional nurseries. However, they are not difficult to propagate, so they are fun to share with plant-loving friends if you can get your hands on them.
Although some sources may claim it’s an orchid, this plant is a member of the Dioscoreaceae family, commonly known as the Yam family. This family encompasses four genres, one of which is Tacca.
The Tacca genus includes about 20 species of bat flowers and Polynesian arrowroot. This arrowroot is not to be confused with the plant that also goes by the common name arrowroot but is a member of the Ginger family.
Plants in the Tacca genus are tender perennial evergreens that grow in tropical climates. They have a rhizomatic root system, similar to a sympodial orchid.
This tuberous root grows beneath the soil, sending out shoots horizontally. Rhizomes are particularly vulnerable to root rot, which is a consideration with this plant.
The flower on this plant is most noteworthy, although the plant itself is pretty attractive. The flowers are unusual and unique, making this plant a novelty. The plant is sometimes likened to an orchid, and there have been questions about whether it is, in fact, an orchid, but it is not.
The most noteworthy part of the plant is actually not the flower but the large, wing-shaped bracts that hover above the flowers. As the most common color for these bracts is black, they are thought to resemble bats, and I tend to agree.
The actual flowers hang from the center of the bracts. They are small and point upward when the bracts open, gradually opening and becoming pendulous. Interspersed with these flowers are long, thin, whisker-like filaments, which add to the unique appearance of this flowering wonder.
The flowers are followed by dark-colored berries, which contain the seeds. If you desire to germinate seeds, these fruits should dry on the plant.
As I mentioned, the most common flowers are deep purple to black. However, these flowers also come in shades of green, white, brown, and maroon. They also can be softly fragrant, with a sweet scent.
In addition to its curious flowers, the lovely foliage has a distinctive tropical appearance with long, broad, shiny leaves. These leaves will let you know if your plant is not getting enough moisture or humidity by drooping and turning brown at the edges.
You can propagate these tropical beauties by seed or division, although division is the most common and effective way to go. The rhizomatic roots make division a simple process, giving you a second plant that is an exact clone of the parent plant, already mature and ready to flower. Growing from seed takes quite a bit longer to get to this point.
Growing these plants from seed is relatively easy but is much more time-consuming than dividing the plant. However, if you want to grow more plants, growing from seed will achieve this goal.
- Harvest or obtain seeds from a reputable source. Allow the seed pods on your plant to mature and dry on the plant before harvesting the seeds.
- Soak your seeds in water overnight to aid in germination.
- Use a rich, well-draining potting mix in a container large enough for the plant to grow strong, as they do not like to be transplanted. A large seed starting tray should do the trick.
- Moisten your soil and lightly press seeds into the top layer.
- Cover your container with plastic, and set it in a warm space. Heat will encourage faster germination, so the use of a heat mat is recommended.
- Now for the difficult part. The seeds take 8-12 weeks to germinate, so it is an exercise in patience to wait for them. Keep the soil moist in the meantime.
Because of the type of roots this plant has, division is a fairly simple way to propagate. Remember that they don’t love being transplanted, so it’s best to do it as infrequently as possible. Make your divisions in the fall after the plant has stopped blooming.
You don’t have to entirely re-pot your plant if the parent plant has small suckers growing toward the outside of the plant. You can simply push some of the soil aside and use a sharp tool to cut away these small baby plants and then pot them individually.
If you are re-potting your plant anyway, this is a good time to take cuttings. Look for these smaller plant offshoots that are not attached to the central rhizome. They should have some roots of their own to establish themselves. Cut these portions away and plant them in small pots of their own.
The best time to re-pot or plant this species in the ground is in the spring. It’s always best to avoid re-potting or disrupting the plant while it is in bloom. If planting in the ground, dig a hole that is twice as wide and only as deep as the container it is in. This loosens the soil around the plant for roots to develop.
How to Grow
Carefully choosing a container is important for this plant. The main consideration when potting is to give your plant space to grow. The rhizomatic root system needs space to spread out.
If you plant in a container that is not large enough, your plant will become pot-bound, and this one won’t be happy that way. Choose a pot that is several inches wider than the pot your plant came in. When re-potting, make sure to go up in size as well.
The second important factor in choosing a container is drainage. This species has sensitive roots that do not like to sit in soggy soil. They love moisture, but too much moisture can lead to root rot. Choose a container with adequate drainage, giving this plant the best chance of thriving.
Light requirements are very similar to a Phalaenopsis orchid. Too much direct sunlight will scorch the leaves and take a negative toll on the plant’s overall health. A few hours of direct sun in the morning will likely be okay. The afternoon sun is going to be too intense for this plant.
The ideal situation is bright but indirect light for most of the day. This can be achieved indoors by placing your plant near a brightly lit window. Using a sheer curtain is another way to filter the light if it is too intense in your chosen spot.
If you are growing outdoors, they do best under the canopy of a tree, where light reaches them, but not directly. 40-60% shade is the objective, so shade cloth in this range is another great way to create the right environment for your plant.
These plants need a lot of nutrients, and rich soil is the foundation for providing them with those nutrients. They also have rhizomes that are sensitive to overwatering, so their soil needs to have excellent drainage.
Start with a good quality, standard potting mix. Your potting medium should be about 50% made up of this. 10% of your potting medium should be a substance that increases drainage, such as perlite or coarse sand. This keeps everything from breaking down too much and compressing.
The remaining 40% of your potting mix should contain nutrient-rich amendments such as compost, pine bark, and peat moss. Adding these amendments helps to improve drainage and adds extra nutrients to the potting mixture.
Bat flowers need to stay consistently moist. They use a lot of water during their growing season, so keeping a watch on the soil is essential. If you keep it outdoors, check on it often. You may need to water it as much as every 2-3 days in warmer climates.
It will be easier to monitor the plant’s moisture level indoors, allowing you to exercise caution when watering to avoid overdoing it. If the container has adequate drainage, you should be fine watering it once weekly. If your container has no drainage, check that the top inch of soil is dry before watering.
When planted outdoors in a shaded spot, it should be watered frequently, according to the temperature and rainfall. As long as the area has good drainage, you can water every one to two days outdoors.
In all situations, avoid allowing the soil to dry out. In indoor settings, keeping a saucer beneath the plant is a good way to avoid letting the soil dry out. These tropical plants need plenty of moisture to thrive and produce those unique flowers.
In the winter, while your plant is dormant, it will need significantly less water. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings to avoid root rot.
Climate and Temperature
Tropical plants don’t do well in cold weather. If you reside in zones 9-11, you can grow it in the ground all year. In any other zone, it will have to be a container plant. The ideal temperatures for this plant range from 59°-84°F.
Fortunately, these plants do well in containers and can thrive indoors with enough humidity. The minimum humidity level is 50%. They prefer humidity to be more in the 60-90% range, and leaves may turn brown at the edges if the air is too dry.
There are a few ways to raise the humidity around your plant. My bat flower is quite happy in my bathroom, near to, but not directly in front of, a window. The humidity is typically higher in the bathroom than in other rooms.
Another method of raising humidity is with a humidifier. This is a good way to do it as long as you are not concerned about other items in your home being damaged. A pebble tray is another way to raise the humidity directly around the plant rather than in the surrounding area.
Tacca plants can be fertilized on the same schedule as orchids. If you are an orchid collector, you can lump this plant in with your other orchids.
Orchid fertilizer is ideal, although a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer will work fine. Fertilize every two weeks during the growing season (spring-fall).
Maintenance and Care
Bat flower plants are moderately complicated in terms of their needs. Care needs to be taken to avoid overwatering. That said, these plants love moisture through watering and humidity. A delicate balancing act must be carried out with this plant, involving creating a humid environment with plenty of air circulation to avoid fungal diseases.
You can deadhead once the blooms have wilted. Remember to keep the seed pods intact until they are dry if you want to retrieve seeds. No regular pruning is necessary, but removing damaged foliage will keep your plant directing nutrients to healthy, new growth.
|botanical name Tacca chantrieri|
|sun requirements Partial sun, indirect light|
|hardiness zones 9-11|
First described by French horticulturist Edouard Andre in 1901, T. chantrieri is the black variety, the most common and easiest to find in the genus. The flowers of this species are typically green when they first open, deepening to a dark purple to black over time.
This is a great plant to have around in the fall; a bat flower in bloom on Halloween is undoubtedly a foreboding harbinger or at least creates a lovely, spooky ambiance. If nothing else, it certainly is a conversation piece. People won’t be able to help themselves from staring at this curious and quirky plant.
|botanical name Tacca borneensis|
|sun requirements Partial sun, indirect light|
|height up to 6’|
This variety resembles T. chantrieri, but T. borneensis is endemic to Borneo and has the largest, most impressive leaves. The bracts on this species are arranged differently from other species, with the larger bracts vertically enveloping the smaller, horizontal bracts.
T. borneensis also has less pronounced filaments than T. chantrieri and is generally a less flamboyant flower. The flowers are similar in color, starting green and gradually darkening to a purple-black shade. It is also a taller, more imposing plant than the black variety.
|botanical name Tacca integrifolia|
|sun requirements Partial sun, indirect light|
|hardiness zones 9-11|
Although rarer than its shadowy counterpart, the white bat flower has gained some momentum among plant collectors. It is larger than the black plant, and the flowers are also slightly different.
The large bracts are white with purple veining. While the black version’s bracts lie to the sides and top, the white variety has two large bracts resembling cat ears atop the flower cluster.
Pests and Diseases
This showy tropical perennial is surprisingly resistant to most common garden pests. There are very few diseases to contend with either. Most of this plant’s major concerns are environmental and preventable.
Snails and Slugs
While most pests will leave this plant alone, it can fall victim to slugs and snails. These common and destructive pests will come for your plants outdoors. Slugs and snails can be very helpful in your compost pile, but outside of that, they are not a welcome sight in the garden.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to deter these little critters. Beer traps and copper tape are great deterrents. Diatomaceous earth will eliminate them effectively, and commercial repellants can be found at most local retailers, including organic options.
We talked about the delicate balance when it comes to moisture. Root rot is nearly always caused by overwatering, which is usually preventable. You can get ahead of the root rot issue by using soil that drains well, along with a container with proper drainage.
If you are dealing with root rot, the best action is to re-pot your plant. Very gently remove all soil from the root system and use a clean, sharp tool to trim away affected root tissue. You can treat the roots with a copper-based fungicide before re-potting in new, fresh potting soil.
Mold and Mildew
Other fungal issues can crop up with these plants if there is not enough air circulation. Their need for humidity also creates the perfect environment for many types of mold to grow. I cannot stress enough that air circulation is vital to your plant’s survival.
Cultivating bat flower plants is not for the faint of heart. Keeping these plants healthy takes quite a bit of attention to the environment. While they are not related to orchids, they have many similar needs, so if you are good with orchids, chances are good that you can successfully raise this spectacular plant.
Give your plant plenty of moisture, a container and soil with good drainage, and adequate humidity. If you strike the right environmental balance with this plant, it should reward you handsomely with some of the most interesting flowers in the garden.