When a niece gave me an Amazon gift card for Christmas, I originally intended to purchase books with it. After I recalled that I already had teetering stacks of them all over the floor beside my overflowing shelves, I considered other options.
This, I decided, might be my opportunity to get a couple impractical and expensive plants that I'd always wanted but was too miserly to buy for myself. Actually, my supply of greenery is as excessive as my supply of books, the only difference being that it’s much harder to stack plants! But that didn’t deter me once the idea had taken root.
However, the plants at the top of my wish list were tropical. Would someone really ship them to me in mid-winter? Much to my surprise, I found a seller who had two of my wants available and who was located just one state over from Pennsylvania. I convinced myself that the plants weren’t likely to freeze during a trip that short. Besides, the packer surely would include a heat pack in the box.
The packer surely didn't. Fortunately, the weekend on which the tropicals traveled was warmer than usual with above-freezing temperatures which only descended abruptly back into the 20s Fahrenheit on the Monday the box was due to be delivered. I watched for our rural mail carrier to arrive and whisked that box indoors shortly after she had deposited it on our porch. So the plants, buried under several inches of packing peanuts, did survive their mid-winter trek. However, next time, I probably would ask about the heat pack first!
One of those survivors was the white bat flower (Tacca integrifolia), on which only the wings (bracts) actually are white. Otherwise the bloom is as dark as that of the black bat flower (Tacca chantrieri). Both, as you can tell from the images here, have a delightfully weird appearance with multiple "eyes" and "whiskers." The Tacca integrifolia 'Nivea' cultivar reportedly has somewhat whiter bracts and lighter colored leaves than the original integrifolia.
After reading up on the bat flower, I discovered that it prefers bright, indirect light and warm, humid conditions in a location where it is sheltered from drafts. So I wedged it in between my orchids, atop a gravel tray and under a grow light, in the process skewering one of its best leaves with an orchid stake. Thus far, it seems to be doing fairly well, though the edges of its largest leaves have browned, probably in adjusting to the lower humidity levels outside a greenhouse.
You gardeners In USDA zones 10 through 12 can grow bat flowers in a shady or partially shady location outdoors, if your climate is humid. They require rich, acidic, and well-drained soil that never completely dries out during summer, in an area which is sheltered from harsh winds.
For indoor growing, you also will need a fast-draining and acidic potting mix. Tacca, once known as Ataccia, should be planted with the top 1/2 inch of its vertical rhizome protruding from the soil. As with outdoor growing, keep the soil constantly moist during summer, preferably watering it with rainwater rather than hard tap water. During winter, allow the surface of that soil to dry out before watering it again to prevent the rhizome from rotting. Don't take the plant outdoors in spring until nighttime temperatures have risen above 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you wish to try growing tacca from seeds, soak those seeds for 24 hours in a thermos of hot water. If they don’t swell after that soaking, continue to soak them for up to 72 hours. Then drain them and sow them about 1/16 of an inch deep in sterile seed-starting mix. Enclose the container in a plastic bag to keep the mix moist, before setting that container on a seedling heat mat which raises the soil temperature to between 80 and 85 degrees. Germination typically takes from one to nine months.
Although the bat flower has a reputation for being difficult, the shriveling of its leaves doesn't necessarily mean the plant is deceased. As long as the rhizome hasn't decayed, tacca--like the mythological vampires often associated with bats--can rise from the dead.
Images courtesy of PlantFiles