How to care for a Dieffenbachia

Some plants just make the perfect addition to the home and the genus Dieffenbachia (also known as leopard lily) is one of them. Although the species is toxic and should be handled with caution, if you’re wondering how to care for a Dieffenbachia, you’re in luck. It’s truly a breeze and this is a very popular houseplant due to its large green foliage and low light requirements.

Keep reading for everything you need to know about how to care for a Dieffenbachia and growing this plant in your own home!

Name(s) (Common, scientific) Dumb cane*, leopard lily, Dieffenbachia
Difficulty level Easy
Recommended lighting Medium
Water Keep lightly moist
Soil Well-draining, moisture maintaining
*The common name of ‘dumb cane’ has come under scrutiny due to the reference it makes to the historic use of this plant’s poisonous properties to punish slaves. The canes would be cut and rubbed in the mouth, making one unable to speak, ie. ‘dumb’. Scroll down to the last paragraph for more.

Dieffenbachia natural habitat

The genus Dieffenbachia naturally occurs in tropical areas in Central/South America and the Caribbean. Here, the 60-some different species can be found on forest floors.

How to care for a Dieffenbachia: Light and temperature

Light

Because Dieffenbachias are sheltered from direct sun in their natural habitat they don’t like things too bright in the home either. The plant should still be near a window, but it should be one that doesn’t get the full blast of the afternoon sun. Perfect for those looking for a houseplant that can grow in lower light conditions!

A sheer curtain can help soften the harshest rays; if you have no window for the plant to live near to you can also opt for artificial lighting.

Temperature

The tropical areas that Dieffenbachias grow in are generally pretty toasty year-round. As such, the plant is not used to low temperatures and you should avoid exposing it to cold. Caring for Dieffenbachia involves keeping it warm.

Room temperature works perfectly for this species and you should be careful not to let things drop below around 54 °F/12 °C. Your plant won’t immediately succumb to low temps but it can take a hit and stop growing for a while.

Guide to caring for dumb cane (Dieffenbachia)

How to care for a Dieffenbachia: Soil and planting

Soil

Like many tropical houseplants, Dieffenbachias are Aroids from the family Araceae. They like their soil to be a perfect combination of well-draining but moisture retaining. That sounds contradictory but it basically means that excess water should be able to flow out but without the soil immediately going dry.

Standard potting soil will clump around the roots too much and become much too dense, allowing for no water flow and aeration.

You can easily make your own Dieffenbachia mix by following aroid soil guidelines. There are many options out there but the simplest ones would probably be equal mixes of either sphagnum moss + perlite or potting soil + perlite. The moss or soil keeps the moisture in while the perlite creates air pockets for excess water to drain through. You can also mix all of these together and add extras like orchid bark.

Planting

The ideal planter for your Dieffenbachia would probably just be a standard plastic nursery planter. These have drainage holes in the bottom but don’t let too much moisture escape like porous terracotta would. A decorative overpot can be used to hide the plastic container.

Your plant will likely start getting a bit crowded in its pot after a while, as these are vigorous growers. If this is the case, part of how to care for a Dieffenbachia is a springtime repot. Either move one pot size up or separate offsets to their own containers to make more space for the mother plant. Don’t forget to use fresh soil, especially if it has been a while since you last repotted the plant.

Tip: You should consider wearing gloves when handling a Dieffenbachia. See the last paragraph for more details.

Dieffenbachia houseplant, also known as dumb cane.

How to care for a Dieffenbachia: Watering

Like most tropical houseplants that come from rainforest environments, Dieffenbachia likes its soil moist but not soggy. That means you should let the first inch or two of the soil dry out before watering again: if a finger poked into the soil comes out dry, you can give your plant a drink. If the leaves are starting to droop, act a bit quicker next time!

Keep in mind that the exact watering schedule will vary based on the season and the plant’s location in the home. In lower light rooms or during wintertime, your Dieffenbachia will need noticeably less water than when it’s full summer and extremely bright.

How to care for a Dieffenbachia: Fertilizer

A healthy Dieffenbachia will grow vigorously during late spring, summer and early fall, quickly sucking nutrients from its potting soil. During the growing season you can help it out by applying a houseplant fertilizer every two weeks or so.

Large Dieffenbachia plant pictured as part of a white interior with dark wooden floor.

Propagating Dieffenbachia

The easiest way to turn one Dieffenbachia into more Dieffenbachias is to remove offsets. The plant usually produces these by itself without any interference if it’s healthy. Once these offsets are large enough to sustain themselves you can sever their connection to the mother plant using a clean, sharp knife and pot them up into their own containers.

If your Dieffenbachia hasn’t produced any offsets, you can also create more plants through the method of air layering. Roughly, this involves locating a leaf node on the stem, making a cut in this area and then covering this with a plastic bag filled with moist sphagnum moss. You’ll basically confuse the plant into growing roots in this area, so that the stem in question can now be used as an actual new plant.

Lastly, Dieffenbachias are ideal for stem propagation. You can cut the head off your plant and pot it up; both the head and the headless stem will regrow. You can even take it further, cutting the canes into pieces of a few inches long, which will each have the ability to grow into whole new plants.

Close up of leaf of Dieffenbachia 'Reflector' | How to care for dumb cane houseplant
Dieffenbachia ‘Reflector’ features a gorgeous camouflage pattern.

Problems with Dieffenbachia

Although caring for Dieffenbachia is not too challenging and it’s a sturdy plant that can definitely be grown by beginners, issues can always arise.

A few of the more common Dieffenbachia problems that you might end up coming across are:

  • Brown leaf tips on Dieffenbachia are often caused by low humidity levels or excess fertilizer. If your tap water is really hard or low-quality, this can also affect your plant.
  • Yellow leaves on Dieffenbachia are tricky because they can be caused by both over- and underwatering. Your plant might also be too cold – is it sitting near a single paned window, for example? Or under the aircon? Alternatively, might there be pests hiding on the bottom of the leaves or in the soil?

    Yellow leaves on the bottom of the plant might be entirely natural, as plants simply shed leaves that are no longer useful to them.
  • Patchy discoloration on Dieffenbachia leaves (spots, splotches) might be related to disease. Leaf spot fungus is common and often caused by overwatering.

Buying Dieffenbachia

This is a popular houseplant and as briefly mentioned, the genus Dieffenbachia contains almost 60 different plants. Now, you’re not going to find all of them in your local garden center, but most do carry one or two species/cultivars!

For example, Dieffenbachia ‘Camille’ features even yellow to cream variegation in the leaf centers, while Dieffenbachia seguine has a more splotchy leaf pattern. Dieffenbachia ‘Compacta’ should stay quite small and Dieffenbachia ‘Camouflage’ sports leaves with very little green.

You can buy your Dieffenbachia houseplant online.

Dieffenbachia, a popular houseplant also known as dumb cane.

Is Dieffenbachia toxic to cats and dogs?

This plant contains oxalate crystals, which is quite common in houseplants. However, the concentration here is so high that it makes Dieffenbachia relatively dangerous. If the sap touches the mouth or throat it quickly causes severe irritation or swelling. This can be fatal. A 2003 study, for example, discusses the death of a poodle after ingesting the plant.

Naturalist Sir Hans Sloane wrote in 1707: “If one Cut this cane with a Knife, and put the tip of the Tongue to it, it makes a very painful Sensation, and occasions such a very great irritation on the salivary Ducts, that they presently swell, so that the person cannot speak, and do nothing for some time but void Spittle in a great degree, or Salivate, which in some time goes off.”

As you could probably guess, then, this is not a species to have on display if you have pets or small kids. You should also make sure you wear gloves when you handle it, because even rubbing your eye after touching the sap can cause massive irritation or worse.

Extra: Dieffenbachia naming

As briefly touched upon before, Dieffenbachia is also referred to as ‘dumb cane’. This is a name that has fallen out of favor with some botanists, as it makes reference to the historical practice of using the plant to punish slaves. According to Fochtman et al. (1969), “The cut stalk of Dieffenbachia was rubbed into the mouths of slaves in Jamaica as a form of punishment”.

I’ve had a little trouble finding actual scientific sources that say the name ‘dumb cane’ was derived from this and makes direct reference to slaves becoming dumb (unable to speak) when tortured, or if it refers to the effect on people in general. Still, I’ve removed the term from this article. Using scientific names is usually a better idea anyway, as it makes it a lot clearer which plant you’re talking about in many cases!


If you have any more questions about how to care for a Dieffenbachia or if you want to share your own experiences with this popular houseplant, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below. Happy planting!

Sources

Fochtman, F. W., Manno, J. E., Winek, C. L., & Cooper, J. A. (1969). Toxicity of the genus Dieffenbachia. Toxicology and applied pharmacology15(1), 38-45.

Loretti, A. P., da Silva Ilha, M. R., & Ribeiro, R. E. (2003). Accidental fatal poisoning of a dog by Dieffenbachia picta (dumb cane). Veterinary and human toxicology45(5), 233-239.


Marijke Puts
About Marijke Puts
Marijke Puts has Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Science and is from The Netherlands. She has a certified master gardener and loves everything about houseplants and gardening.

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