Succulent Gardening: The Art of Nature

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Dioscorea sylvatica

Dioscorea sylvatica come Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and South Africa (Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Western Cape).  Altitude range: From near sea level up to 1800 metres.  Habitat and ecology: Dioscorea sylvatica grows in a variety of wooded and relatively mesic places, such as the moister bushveld areas, margins of forests, bracken or ericoid scrubs, Albany thicket, fynbos, grasslands, savanna, coastal bush and wooded mountain kloofs. It is quite frequent where it occurs but very slow growing (generation length estimated to be 30 years). There was a huge population decline from 1955-1960 as a result of indiscriminate commercial harvesting for diosgenin, a substance that was used to manufacture cortisone and other steroid hormones. Exploitation of tubers for the local medicinal plant trade is ongoing, and is preventing recovery. It is also threatened by the extreme pressure of pastoral grazing that is is changing the micro-habitat of the bush and possibly the decline of mature individuals is also caused by illegal over collection of the tubers that are highly sought after by caudiciform collectors.

The Elephant's Foot Yam, Dioscorea sylvatica, is a semi-tropical slender twining herb with annual stems growing from a massive, reticulated tuberous rootstock or caudex. The caudex that lie flat on the surface of the soil is divided into regular polygonal plates that become protuberant with age, divided by deep furrows. Vigorous, annual climbing stems can grow to as much as 4 or 5 meters in a season. Male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. Larger caudices rank as curiosities of the plant kingdom, and are eagerly sought after and admired by collectors of succulent plants. 

Cultivation and Propagation: Dioscorea sylvatica responds well to cultivation and makes an easy and wonderfully unusual houseplant. Plants even five to ten years old are extremely nice. Vigorous, annual climbing stems can grow to as much as 4 or 5 meters in a season, however these can be trained quite comfortably around a wire hoop set in a pot when grown indoors.
Exposure: It prefers light shade, but keep the caudex in the shade.
Waterings: It needs moderate to regular water. Slow down or withheld water when the tuber is dormant in summer (after shedding its leaves). It will start growing again in Autumn. Watering can recommence once the plant has shown signs of producing a fresh shoot. Sometimes it ignores its proper growing seasons (from autumn to spring ) and keeps its vines growing long into its rest period, or sends up new vines much earlier than expected. In that case, paying attention to the plant and not the calendar is a good idea.

Hardiness: It is easy to grow if a winter temperature of 5° C can be maintained.
Medical uses: Poisonous. Antibacterial, for wounds, sores, mastitis, abscesses. Dioscorea sylvatica contains diosgenin, a substance that was used to manufacture cortisone and other steroid hormones. It also shows antibacterial activity: extracts of D. sylvatica (tuber bark) have shown antibacterial activity against Escherichia coli. D. sylvatica may produce mild inflammation and itching when rubbed on the skin, with cutaneous reactions caused in part by raphides of calcium oxalate.
Propagation: Seeds, difficult from cuttings. Sow seeds 5mm deep and keep them warm. Sprouts best in indirect light. The seedlings' caudex forms below ground and will grow much faster if left underground for a couple of years.

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