Now that our autumn rain has arrived, the forest floor in our woodland has sprung back to life. It’s almost like a second spring even though the trees are beginning to shed their leaves. Underfoot, piggyback plant (Tolmiea menziesii) has greened back up and is busy producing little plantlets atop nearly every leaf.
This shade-loving woodland perennial is also known as youth-on-age or thousand mothers. All refer to the plant’s alternate reproductive strategy of forming new baby plants on top of the current year’s leaves. Piggyback plant also sets seed, but spreads more easily when the plantlets break off and take root. As we get further into autumn, you may even see roots descending from the plantlets, dangling below the leaves and searching for soil below.
Piggyback plant blooms in mid-spring to summer, typically in May. Flowers are green to brown tubes, tipped with long bristles (yet another common name is bristle flower). They’re not particularly showy individually, but seen in mass they can make a good show.
This is a choice native plant for a shady woodland garden. It prefers moist humusy soil, but tolerates drier conditions. Definitely do not plant this one in the full sun. You’ll often find it growing along streams or at the side of a trail. In our mixed deciduous woods it forms a large dense carpet in many of the moister areas.
You can easily propagate piggyback plant vegetatively. Just remove some plantlets and plant them in an appropriate spot. You can also propagate it from leaf cuttings.
There aren’t many northwest natives sold as houseplants, but piggyback plant is one you can find and grow inside pretty easily. Its Latin name, Tolmiea menziesii, honors William Fraser Tolmie (1812-1886), surgeon for the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, as well as Archibald Menziess (1754-1852), surgeon and naturalist on George Vancouver’s voyage around the world on HMS Discovery.