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Cathedral Bells (Bryophyllum pinnatum)

Cathedral Bells is a succulent perennial plant that grows to about 60-120cm tall. It has an upright, fleshy, cylindrical stem with a reddish tinge. It reproduces by seeds and plantlets that form at the edges of its leaves. 

Bryophyllum pinnatum can be easily identified by its broad leaves with scalloped margins, with three (and occasionally five) leaflets. It also has bell-shaped flowers that are yellowish-green to dark or pinkish-red. 

Bryophyllum pinnatum Scientific Classification

  • Domain: Eukaryota
  • Kingdom: Plantae
  • Phylum: Anthophyta
  • Subphylum: Magnoliophyta
  • Class: Magnoliopsida 
  • Order: Rosales 
  • Family: Crassulaceae 
  • Genus: Bryophyllum 
  • Species: Bryophyllum pinnatum
  • Synonyms: Kalanchoe pinnata
  • Common names: Air plant, Miracle leaf, Leaf of life, Love bush, Canterbury bells, Life plant, Goethe plant, Mother of millions, Resurrection plant, and Mexican love plant. 

Nativity & Distribution

Bryophyllum pinnatum is Native to Madagascar and South Africa. It is also a widely naturalized plant that is commonly found in: 

  • East Africa 
  • Asia (Indonesia, New Guinea, the Philippines, and Taiwan)
  • New Zealand
  • Australia 
  • U.S.A (Florida)
  • Caribbean 
  • Southern Europe
  • The Pacific (Polynesia, Hawaii, and Galapagos Islands)
  • Brazil 

Physical Characteristics

The plant has simple or compound leaves with serrated margins
The plant has simple or compound leaves with serrated margins. Image: Canva/raweenuttapong
  • Leaves: Thick, simple (or compound) leaves with serrated margins, oppositely arranged. 
  • Fruits: Papery fruits that remain enclosed at the base of the old flower parts. 
  • Stems: Upright, fleshy, and hairless stems. It can grow up to 1.2m.
  • Flowers: 7-8mm wide with yellow central (tubular) florets.
  • Roots: Shallow roots. Roots can also develop from the plant’s leaves.

Cathedral bells is a perennial plant with a fleshy, upright-growing stem that grows to between 30 and 120 cm tall. It is easily identified by its succulent stem with a reddish tinge and its bell-shaped, yellowish-green, dark red, or pinkish-red flowers. 

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The stems are cylindrical, fleshy (although slightly woody at the base), hairless, and reddish. Leaves are oppositely arranged on the stem, and the number of leaflets can vary from one (around the base of the stem) to three or five (higher up the stems). 

B. pinnatum leaves are fleshy and can be either simple or compound. They are elliptical with serrated margins and rounded tips. They are green to yellowish-green in color and hairless. The leaf or leaflet size varies: 5 to 25cm long and 2 to 12.5cm wide. 

The flowers have the appearance of church bells
The flowers have the appearance of church bells. Image: Canva/rpferreira

B. pinnatum flowers are tubular (bell-shaped), drooping, and have four petal lobes. The color of the flower varies from greenish-yellow to dark red and pinkish-red. 

The flowers are arranged in branched clusters at the top of the stem. Each flower head is attached to the stem with a stalk (10-25mm long). Depending on the growing conditions, the flowers can bloom most of the year. 

Cathedral bells’ seeds are small and slender (less than 1mm long). They are brownish-colored and are contained in small follicles (10-15mm) enclosed in the persistent calyx and corolla  (old parts of the flower that remain even after fertilization).  

Reproduction, Dispersal, & Life Cycle

  • Life cycle: Perennial 
  • Seeds: Each fruit contains numerous tiny seeds
  • Climate: Grows well in tropical and subtropical areas with warm and temperate climates. 
  • Dispersal: Wind, water, and animals. 

Bryophyllum pinnatum is a perennial plant that reproduces through seeds. Each fruit contains numerous tiny seeds, which are small, lightweight, and wing-like. 

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The seeds are mostly dispersed by wind and water. They can also be spread by animals that eat the plant’s fruits, excreting the seeds into the soil. 

The seeds germinate in shallow soil (about one-eighth inch deep). They can also enter deep into the soil, where they can remain viable for many years before sprouting after the soil is disturbed. 

B. pinnatum also reproduces asexually through plantlets that form at the leaves. Once the leaves are broken from the main plant, they will form roots, quickly growing into new plants. 

Leaves dispersal can occur when the plant (or leaves) are cut and dumped from gardens or fields. 

Uses

Bryophyllum pinnatum is widely used in traditional medicine to treat several health problems. According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, the plant also contains medicinal properties that can help treat kidney stones. 

The leaves of B. pinnatum are edible; they can be cooked or eaten raw in salads. 

Due to its colorful flowers, some people have also cultivated it as an ornamental plant. 

Impact on Farms and Environment

The weed can invade farmland or landscaping
The weed can invade farmland or landscaping. Image: weeds.brisbane.qld.gov.au

Bryophyllum pinnatum is an invasive weed that can propagate through seeds and vegetative means, allowing it to colonize new areas rapidly. 

When it infests a new area, the plant forms dense bushes that can shade out and outcompete natural vegetation. The invasiveness is made worse because the plant produces numerous seeds that can remain dormant but viable in the soil for a long time.

The plant commonly forms infestations in open woodlands, grasslands, and coastal dunes. This can affect the biodiversity of local ecosystems.  

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Because of its invasiveness, B. pinnatum cultivation is controlled in some regions: It is on the list of controlled landscape plants in Miami-Dade County, Florida, and is also on the list of Southeastern Queensland’s top 50 most invasive plants

Apart from being invasive, B. pinnatum contains cardiac glycoside, a chemical compound that is toxic to animals. The plant can also adversely affect agriculture, such as clogging water canals in fields and being a host plant for pests like caterpillars. 

Control

  • Natural methods: Hand removal and fire. 
  • Chemical control:  Glyphosate (best used before flowering), 2,4-D (for targeting the leaves), Fluroxypyr (for actively growing seedlings and young plants), and Triclopyr + Picloram (for when the plant is flowering). 
  • Biological control: South African thrips (Scirtothrips aurantia)

Bryophyllum pinnatum can be controlled naturally by removing small infestations from the soil by hand. The removed plants must not be composted; instead, you should dispose of them in sealed plastic bags to avoid spreading the seeds and leaves. 

If possible, you should try to control B. pinnatum with fire by burning infestations. You can also burn any plants you have removed from the ground by hand. 

Herbicides are another excellent option for controlling B. pinnatum. Depending on the germination stage, you can consider several herbicides, such as glyphosate, 2,4-D, fluroxypyr, and triclopyr + picloram. 

NOTE: Check with your local government for similar herbicides that are allowed in your country.

B. pinnatum can also be controlled using biological agents. In Queensland, South African thrips have been proven effective at controlling Cathedral bells infestations. 

The thrip is usually considered a major horticultural pest in Africa. However, it also causes considerable damage to the B. pinnatum plant and can help to reduce the population of these invasive weeds.