Dioscorea elephantipes


Dioscorea elephantopus
Dioscorea montana
Dioscorea testudinaria
Rhizemys elephantipes
Rhizemys montana
Tamus elephantipes
Testudinaria elephantipes
Testudinaria elephantipes f. montana
Testudinaria montana


Dioscorea elephantipes is native to Cape Provinces where the plant grows on rocky slopes in dry soils.


Dioscorea elephantipes is a perennial caudiciform succulent belonging to the Dioscoreaceae botanical family. The plant has a climbing habit and can reach up to 90 cm in diameter and can form vine up to 6 m long. The plant forms a large caudex, partially subterranean, woody, stout, covered on the outside with thick greyish-brown bark that becomes deeply cracked into polygonal plates. The plants that form the caudex use their subterranean tuber to store water and cope with long periods of drought. The stems are slender, twining, long, glabrous and the vines die during the summer. The leaves are heart-shaped, bright green, alternate and shortly petioled. Blooming occurs during the spring and the blossoms are borne by stalks. The succulent is dioecious, so male flowers and female flowers are borne by different individuals. The inflorescence are small, spiny racemes. The flowers are star-shaped, small, yellowish to white. The most attractive feature of this plant is the turtle-shaped caudex which makes this plant unique and different from any plants you have ever seen. The ornamental value of the plant it is not the only reason that makes this plant so sought after: in the past the plant was threatened with extinction because it was a source of steroidal saponins like diosgenin, used to synthesize cortisone and birth control pills. Nowadays there are other cheaper sources of these steroids. In the past the tubers were eaten by indigenous people in South Africa, after significant processing to remove toxic compounds. Due to the large amount of effort required to obtain edible material, such tubers are nowadays normally only consumed in times of famine.


This is a fast growing plant, easy to cultivate. The plant needs a full light sun exposure but is recommended to avoid direct sun-light during the summer. Long exposure to direct sun-light can cause burns and burnt spots. The succulent can tolerate temperatures to 45° C, and short periods of frost, but prolonged cold will damage or kill the plant. Too low temperatures can cause the stem or leaves to break due to water freezing inside the tissues. Temperatures between 10 and 15 °C allow the plants to enter vegetative rest which is essential for the flowering of the following year. Plants should not be placed inside the house where average temperatures of 20 degrees prevent vegetative rest. The best draining soil for this genus is made up of 50% fertile loam and 50% pumice. The pumice should always be placed on the bottom of the pot. Remember to use a perforating pot to drain excess water. Watering can be done regularly during the vegetative period. During the vegetative period you can water the plant every 5 days with half a glass of water, checking that the soil is completely dry before watering again; in winter you should stop the watering to allow the plant to enter dormancy. Decrease the amount of water if the plant is kept indoors or if the pot is smaller than 12 cm. About fertilization, for this plant is sufficient to fertilize moderately during the growing season with the specific fertilizers for succulents and stop fertilizing during the winter. If the pot starts to be too small for the plant you can repot the plant in a pot 2 cm wider. Repotting should be done early in the growing season with fresh new potting soil; it is usually done every 3-4 years. Be careful to red spiders and mealy bugs.


The easiest and fast method of propagation is to use seeds. By seed it is very simple to propagate the plant, it is enough to sow the seed in a sandy loam and keep it with a high level of humidity and at temperature of 14 C°.


With the term Dioscorea it is indicated either the plant and the tuber that it produces and it is used as food by many populations of tropical areas. Other names with which these tubers are known are either igname or yam. Elephantipes in Latin refers to the elephant-like appearance on the outer covering of the bark.

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