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Dieffenbachia longispatha Engl. & K.Krause 1915
pronounced: def-en-BARK-ee-uh long-gee-SPATH-uh
(Araceae — the arum family)
common name: Dumb Cane
Dieffenbachia is named for Dr. Ernst Dieffenbach, 1811 – 1855, German physician, naturalist and geologist, who was the first trained scientist to live and work in New Zealand; longispatha is from the Latin longus, long, and the Greek σπαθη (spathé), a broad double edged sword.
Dieffenbachia is a genus of tropical plants in the arum family, noted for its patterned leaves. Members of this genus are popular as house plants because of their tolerance to shade. The cells of these plants contain needle-shaped calcium oxalate crystals, known as raphides. If a leaf is chewed, these crystals cause a burning sensation in the mouth and throat; swelling can occur along with a temporary inability to speak, hence the common name of the genus. Chewing and swallowing generally result in only mild symptoms, but can result in death if the swelling of the tongue and the throat blocks the airway. Young children, dogs and cats who chew at the leaves are particularly at risk.
The leaves of this species usually have many fewer white spots and splashes than Dieffenbachia maculata . They are monoecious understorey herbs of the New World tropical rainforests from Mexico and the West Indies south to Argentina.
They exhibit a specialized relationship with their beetle pollinators. The spadix is divided, with the female flowers in the lower half and the male flowers in the upper. Dieffenbachia longispatha is pollinated by scarab beetles in the Cyclocephala and Erioscelis genera. The inflorescence’s spathe opens in the evening, but the flowers do not become sexually functional until about 24 hours later. Beetles fly to the inflorescences during the hours of darkness, which suggests that floral odours probably play a part in attracting them. The beetles remain in the inflorescence for 24 hours, eating protein-rich staminodes that surround the stigmas. On the evening of the third day the anthers dehisce, and the beetles become covered with pollen as they crawl up the spadix on their way out of the inflorescence. They then fly to another inflorescence, on average about 80 m away, and deposit the pollen on its female flowers, It takes about 9 months after flowering for fruits to be produced.
Especially in the Philippines, Dumb Cane is being studied as a possible ingredient in the treatment of cancer. In Brazil the plant is reckoned to be important in warding off the evil eye and other negative energies. Because of this, it is a usual inclusion in the ‘seven lucky herbs’ vase, together with common rue, Capsicum annuum , snake plant, basil, rosemary and garlic weed (Petiveria alliacea).
The various Dieffenbachia species are widely cultivated as container plants.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 214th November 2016