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Try a donkey’s tail for an easy-care houseplant

January 3, 2018

Whether it's a jenny, a jack, a foal, a burro, a donkey or an ass, the brave little pack animal has helped mankind for nigh on 5,000 years. It can bray so loud it can be heard up to 2 miles away. The huge ears let this African desert beast cool down quickly by pumping blood throughout. Those ears also let one donkey hear another up to 60 miles away.

Donkeys are stout and reliable, so it is fitting that their namesake, the houseplant Sedum morganianum goes by the familiar name of donkey's tail plant. This trailing succulent grows rope-like branches up to 2 feet long, strung with fleshy, teardrop-shaped leaves. Like a true donkey, this plant requires little care and indeed seems to thrive on neglect. Like most succulents, it can go long periods without water, so it is perfect for the forgetful gardener.

Treat them well with enough water, but not too much, lots of sunlight and some fertilizer, and you will be rewarded with a truly beautiful houseplant. Well-cared-for plants will even sport lovely, tiny flowers in red, white or yellow. Because it actually prefers a cooler winter temperature, it is ideal for cool homes, thriving at summer temperatures of 65ºF to 70ºF and cooler winter temperatures when it is not actively growing as low as 60ºF. Donkey’s tail plants do well in bright light and even some direct sun. In summer, protect it from the hottest sunshine with a bit of shade.

The key to donkey’s tail plant health, as with any succulent, is well-draining soil. Try a mixture of potting soil and sand. A commercial succulent soil that has a slightly acidic pH close to 6.0 is fine. Again, these are forgiving plants, so don't fret over the details. Let the leaves get a bit wrinkled before you water the plant. When the plants are actively growing in spring and summer, feed them weekly with a weak liquid fertilizer at just half strength.

You may find that just bumping the plants will break off the fleshy leaves. Use these to grow more plants. Just put the leaves into a pot and cover lightly with plastic wrap until they root. If your plant becomes too large, you can repot it, best done in the warm days of summer but fine anytime. It is best to repot donkey’s tail between waterings, while the soil is still dry. Gently tap the old soil from the roots and immediately pot it up in a container just an inch larger than its current pot. These plants like to be root bound. Wait a week after potting before you water it. Always go easy on the water. This will avoid root rot.

About the only pests to look out for are mealy bugs. You can kill them by putting the entire pot in a bag overnight with a few mothballs. The fumes will kill the bugs, and yet there will be no residue left on the plants.

Unlike some houseplants, the donkey's tail is not poisonous. Take care that you get the genuine article, Sedum morganianum, and not the similar-looking and poisonous Euphorbia myrsinites, or creeping spurge.

For an easy-to-care-for yet fascinatingly beautiful hanging plant, get a donkey’s tail or burro’s tail. Just don't get the poisonous Euphorbia myrsinites, or you may just make an ass of yourself.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.