The Closest Thing You Can Get to a Pet Alien (and How to Grow it)

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Along with the organisms we’re used to, our planet is populated by some pretty psychedelic looking beings. Most of them keep their transparent bodies, glowing dangly bits, bulging eyes and hypodermic teeth-needles well out of our way in the depths of the ocean. When it comes to land-dwelling life-forms, however, the odd ones often find their way into the hearts and homes of humans. Rare and striking, even among their already unusual cohort, are the bat plants: Tacca chantrieri and Tacca integrifolia

Heidi Brooks
Heidi Brooks

To learn more about these stunning little aliens, we spoke to horticulturist and bat plant enthusiast, Heidi Brooks. Heidi first came across the bat plant while enjoying a stroll through Melbourne’s Garden World, where she now works as the indoor plant buyer. “It was before I started working here, I was walking through and saw them on a trolley and thought ‘oh my God, what is that?’

Fascinated with the plant’s unusual flower, Heidi jumped on the internet as soon as she got home. Scrolling through the pictures, she fell instantly in love but it was a few years before she adopted one of her own.

“Oh my God, what is that?” Image courtesy of: Charles Strebor

While pictures are able to convey the strange flower’s uniqueness, Heidi says there’s nothing like watching the buds of your own plant unfurling. “It’s unbelievable to look at. When you see it finally flower in person, it’s just out of this world, it looks like it should be from another planet.” 

In reality, these galactically herbaceous creatures are far from otherworldy and are, in fact, native to South East Asia. In their tropical homeland, bat plant whiskers can get to well over a foot long. “I think it’s one of the coolest parts of the flower. If you look at it up close, it’s actually a combination of many miniature flowers in one to form the head. They’re quite a heavy flower so they hang down and when the whiskers get onto the ground, it allows insects to crawl up and this helps with pollination.”

Epic whiskers. Image courtesy of: Brocken Inaglory

While most Melbourne nurseries don’t stock the tropical plant, particularly during the colder months, Heidi’s personal experience growing bat plants has taught her that it’s possible to keep them happy, even during a frosty Victorian winter. One of her newly arrived plants has even been brave enough to flower out of season. Good news for anyone in a colder climate who’s keen to have a little potted alien of their own.

Heidi's bat plant
A staunch little autumn-flowering bat plant. Image courtesy of: Heidi Brooks

How to grow a bat plant in colder climates

  • Keep them in the warmest part of your house (but don’t sit them next to a heater or they might burn);
  • A cheap humidifier is all it takes to give the plant the tropical vibes it’s used to;
  • Regular sprays with water will help too;
  • A sunny room with a sheer curtain will let in the right amount of light to help the plant flower without letting the soft leaves burn;
  • Small indoor greenhouses are the perfect way to keep the climate right for your bat plant (and they look cool too); 
  • Ensure you have a well drained potting mix so the roots don’t rot when it gets cold.
Happy bat plant owner, Danielle Smithers

The benefits of having a bat plant

If you fancy a plant that looks like it might suck your soul out through your nostrils but is actually a placid little cherub, then the bat plant may be the herbage you’re looking for. “It really stands out,” Heidi says. “It’s something other than just a plain old peace lily in the home. A lot of people are looking for something different and I think that’s why there’s such a big interest from people in rare plants at the moment.”

Thanks to Heidi Brooks, Danielle Smithers and Bonnie-Marie Hibbs (@gardenersnotebook https://gardenersnotebook.wordpress.com) for the wonderful bat plant images. 

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