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Dioscorea close up

Dioscorea elephantipes (Elephant's Foot)

February 28, 2019

Wave Hill’s Cactus and Succulent House, which occupies the right-hand wing of the Marco Polo Stufano Conservatory, contains some decidedly weird-looking plants. One of the most bizarre is the elephant’s foot (Dioscorea elephantipes), a type of yam from southern Africa. In its natural habitat, rain only falls during the winter months and this plant has adopted a drought-deciduous strategy to survive the hot, dry periods.

The caudex (the swollen base of the stem) serves as a reservoir of moisture and nutrients, protected by a woody, and very knobby, coating. Leafy shoots emerge in fall and last through the winter but they go completely dormant before the warm weather begins.

Dioscorea setting

Over the next few weeks, our plant will start to drop their foliage and give the appearance that they are dying. In fact, they are just doing what comes naturally and will persist as curious sculptural displays until fresh shoots arise again next September.

In the meantime, look for it on the left at the very back of the Cactus and Succulent House, as shown here.

By Charles Day is Wave Hill’s Ruth Rea Howell Senior Horticultural Interpreter