On the sun-drenched windowsill, the tortoise plant becomes a visual highlight thanks to its impressively shaped caudex, which at first glance is reminiscent of the prehistoric armored animal. While the lushly leafy tendrils sprout from this spectacular storage organ, other indoor plants have a hard time topping this brilliant appearance. In order to successfully cultivate this botanical rarity on the flower bench at home or on the summer balcony, even the novice gardeners are up to the task. Read here how to properly care for Dioscorea elephantipes.


  • Plant family: Yam family (Dioscoreaceae)
  • Name of the species: turtle plant (Dioscorea elephantipes)
  • Semi-subterranean caudex with herbaceous climbing tendrils
  • Diameter of the storage organ up to 100 cm
  • Herbaceous parts of the plant thrive once or twice a year
  • Life expectancy of the caudex more than 100 years
  • Inconspicuous flowers
  • Capsules, triangular in shape, with winged seeds
  • Use as an ornamental, medicinal and food plant
  • Further designation: elephant foot


One of the special characteristics of a tortoise plant is its flexible growth. Although the tropical plant wears its magnificent foliage from spring to autumn in the Central European climate, the reverse sometimes occurs. This circumstance has little effect on the actual course of care. However, measures that are based on the course of the vegetation and resting phases should be carried out ‘mirror-inverted’. The nutrient supply explained below depends on the growth and ends with the beginning of the rest period.


A tortoise plant starves for light from spring to fall. Those who comply with this wish will be rewarded with a dense forest of long, busy climbing tendrils. Introduce Dioscorea elephantipes in this place:

  • Sunny location, ideally facing south, south-west or west
  • Shading from the blazing sun is desirable
  • Warm temperatures during growth from 18 to 22 degrees Celsius
  • The minimum temperature is 12 degrees Celsius

From May to September it pushes the elephant’s foot outside. Carry the plant onto the sun-drenched balcony or the bright terrace, the richly leafed shoots will thrive and the prehistoric-looking caudex will develop a harmonious contour.

watering and fertilizing

For the perfect regulation of the water balance, prudent hobby gardeners keep an eye on both the substrate and the caudex. If the surface of the earth dries to a depth of approx. 2 cm, it is poured. The tortoise plant only receives enough water to keep the inner root ball slightly moist without waterlogging. When in doubt, a succulent is watered later rather than tempted. At the latest when the previously firm and plump surface of the storage organ softens, so that small dents form, there is an urgent need for watering.

Spoil a Dioscorea elephantipes preferably with soft water. In this way you meet the requirement for a slightly acidic pH value of the substrate and no unsightly limescale deposits form. If collected rainwater is not available, stagnant or decalcified tap water is an alternative.

Tip: Where soft, nutrient-rich pond water is available for watering a turtle plant, there is no need to add fertilizer.

The uncomplicated cultivation continues seamlessly in terms of nutrient supply. During the growing season, which usually extends from May to September, the tortoise plant gratefully accepts a portion of liquid succulent fertilizer every 14 days. Please note that mineral preparations are never applied to a dried substrate. The risk of burns on the roots due to the salt concentration is too great. If in doubt, the soil is first moistened with clear water and then the liquid fertilizer is applied.

To cut

The herbaceous tendrils thrive for a season, then wither. Leave the shoots on the plant until they have completely yellowed. During this time, the storage organ withdraws all remaining nutrients from the leaves in order to create a depot inside for the next budding. Only when the foliage has fully retracted, cut off the tendrils with scissors.


When the temperatures fall below 15 degrees Celsius in autumn, the herbaceous parts of the plant die off completely. Now it’s high time to add the turtle plant. As long as there are still tendrils on the plant, it remains in the partially shaded location so that all the nutrients can be assimilated by the caudex. Once the shoots have been cut off, the Dioscorea elephantipes enters its winter resting phase. This is how she gets through the cold season:

  • Shady to dark location
  • Temperatures from 12 to 15 degrees Celsius
  • Occasionally wet the caudex with water

Since the roots usually dry up to a large extent, watering is reduced to a minimum. However, the substrate should not dry out completely. The plant does not receive any fertilizer at this time.


In February/March the winter break is coming to an end. In order to professionally prepare a tortoise plant for the new growing season, repotting in fresh soil is now part of the care program. This measure also serves to motivate the dormant caudex to sprout again. Since the storage organ itself only increases in volume very slowly, the planter can be kept for years. As a substrate, we recommend a nutrient-poor, well-drained cactus soil, enriched with lava granules and a little quartz sand. Commercial potting soil is too nutritious and should be optimized with peat, sand and pumice gravel. Transplanting is so easy:

  • Repot the elephant’s foot and thoroughly clean from soil
  • Cut off dried roots
  • Empty the pot, thoroughly clean and disinfect
  • Renew the drainage above the water outlet
  • Fill in the recommended substrate to insert the caudex as deeply as before

After the soil has been watered, initially place the plant in a partially shaded window seat for 8 to 14 days. Following this acclimatization phase, the Dioscorea elephantipes takes its usual location.

Tip: To motivate the sluggish tortoise plant to sprout quickly after repotting, put a transparent plastic bag over it for 8-10 days. At a constant 21 degrees Celsius in the semi-shady place, the hood has done its job when the first tendrils thrive.


Since an elephant’s foot flowers very rarely in culture, the plant does not provide any seeds that can be harvested and sown. It’s a good thing that the specialist trade for ambitious hobby gardeners has single-variety seed of certified quality. Sowing is possible all year round and proceeds in this sequence:

  • Soak the seeds in soft water or chamomile tea for 12-24 hours
  • Fill small pots or a seed tray with peat sand or common seed soil
  • Sow the soaked seeds and sieve 1 cm high with substrate, sand or vermiculite
  • Moisten the sowing with a fine spray of room-warm, soft water

To ensure that germination progresses quickly, place the seed pots in a partially shaded location. Ideally, temperatures of 23-25 ​​degrees Celsius prevail here during the day, which can drop to 16-18 degrees Celsius at night. After 6 to 8 weeks, however, the first cotyledons break through the seed coat. From a growth height of 10 cm, the tiny plants are pricked out in normal substrate for adult tortoise plants. Do not choose a pot that is too small, because in this phase the growth of the caudex is unusually rapid. With good care, it has already reached a diameter of 1 cm after 3-4 weeks.

diseases and pests

Despite its status as a botanical rarity, the tortoise plant is not immune to common diseases and pests. The main problems that can arise during cultivation are as follows:

Powdery mildew
The lush foliage of a Dioscorea elephantipes proves to be particularly susceptible to powdery mildew outdoors. Since the plant and the fungal spores prefer a warm temperature level, they often meet in summer. Typical symptoms of an infection are the mealy-grey patina on the leaves, which later turns brown and causes the leaves to fall off. So keep an eye on the magnificent tendrils to counteract the first signs of powdery mildew with this home remedy:

  • Cut out any suspicious parts of the plant and dispose of them in the household waste
  • Add 100 ml fresh milk to 900 ml water, mix and pour into a hand sprayer
  • Spray the milk-water onto the upper and lower sides of the leaves every 3-4 days

As a precaution, also treat neighboring plants so that the fungal infection cannot spread further.

These omnipresent pests tend to strike in spring and summer. Within a short time, the beautiful leaves on the elephant’s foot are covered with sucking lice. There is now an urgent need for action to prevent the plant from dying. Here’s how to counteract it:

  • Isolate the infested turtle plant
  • Make a mix of 1 liter of water, 15 ml of curd soap and 15 ml of spirit
  • Spray onto leaves and shoots every few days until aphids are gone

In order for this household remedy to have a lasting effect, only pure, liquid curd soap or soft soap may be used. Common soap products from the store are unsuitable.

Anyone who likes to cause a sensation on the representative windowsill or the summery balcony is well advised to cultivate a tortoise plant. After reading this care guide, any concerns about the capricious claims of this botanical rarity should finally be put to rest.

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