By Erin Marissa Russell
Ready to learn all about how to care for a string of dolphins plant? The fanciful string of dolphins plant gets its name from the shapes of its leaves, which really do look like dolphins hanging along the dangling strings. In addition to “string of dolphins,” this plant also goes by the names “dolphin plant,” “flying dolphins,” and “the dolphin necklace.”
This plant is shown off best by planting in a hanging basket or placing its container on top of a high stand, so these trailing strings can wave in the wind. It’s a hybrid between the string of pearls plant (Senecio rowleyanus) and the candle plant (Senecio articulatus).
Best of all, as a succulent, the string of dolphins plant is truly easy to care for. Gardeners in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 9b to 11b can grow string of dolphins plants outdoors, but in the rest of the U.S., they’re grown indoors as houseplants.
Toxicity Warning: The string of dolphins plant is toxic to dogs and cats, so don’t grow it in a place where pets play unsupervised.
If your string of dolphins plant will live indoors, find a place for your plant that gets plenty of sunshine—at least six hours per day. A south-facing window is likely the best spot in the house for this plant. Although the string of dolphins plant needs bright light to thrive, if it is grown outdoors it may welcome some afternoon shade as respite from the sun.
A space inside your home is perfect for meeting the string of dolphins plant’s temperature and humidity needs. Outdoors, be advised that the plants are not frost tolerant, but they do well in weather a bit chillier than other succulents can handle. Your string of dolphins plant will be safe outdoors in temperatures down to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. For those keeping string of dolphins as a houseplant, the plant’s cold tolerance means you don’t need to be as cautious about keeping the plant away from cold spots or drafty windows as you would with most plants.
As a succulent, the string of dolphins plant needs special soil to flourish. You can use a storebought cactus and succulent mix, or you can make a homemade mix. Your mixture should consist of 2 parts potting soil, 1 part pumice or perlite, and 1 part sand.
Use a container that provides plenty of room for the root ball and has drainage holes in the bottom. (Disregard any old wives’ tales you’ve heard about using gravel or broken pottery in the bottom of the pot as drainage. These solutions are not effective.)
Because the string of dolphins plant likes a bit of crowding, you will probably be keeping it in the same pot for a few years, so choose carefully.
String of dolphins plants are classified as succulents because of their ability to store water in the fleshy leaves. This means you won’t need to water them as often as your plants that are not succulents. Let the soil dry out completely between watering sessions to avoid your string of dolphins plant falling victim to root rot. (Though if you need to deal with root rot, see the final section of this article.)
There’s a simple test you can do to see whether the soil has dried out completely. Just stick a finger into the soil near where your plant is growing, about an inch deep. If the earth feels moist or clings to your finger, it isn’t dry yet, so you shouldn’t water your string of dolphins plant yet. Wait until the soil feels dry and does not stick to your finger.
When the plant is dormant in the fall and winter, it does not need regular watering.
It’s easy to overfertilize a string of dolphins plant. Too much fertilizer can cause the dolphin-shaped leaves to lose their distinctive shape. Once a year, though, at the beginning of spring, the string of dolphins plant will benefit from a light fertilizer to help encourage leaf production and blooming. Recommended fertilizers include fish emulsion, liquid kelp, or worm compost.
You don’t have to worry as much about the string of dolphins plant becoming rootbound as with some other plants. The string of dolphins plant actually likes to be a bit rootbound. Keeping your string of dolphins plant rootbound is one way to encourage the plant to bloom. However, every few years, you should still repot it into a slightly larger container.
The easiest way to propagate string of dolphins plants is to take a stem cutting and root it in water or soil. It is up to you whether you want to start them in water so you can watch the roots grow or start them in soil, which means you won’t have to transplant them into containers. Begin by cleaning and sterilizing your garden shears. Soak them in half water and half rubbing alcohol for five minutes, then rinse the shears under clear running water and let them air dry.
Take a cutting that has two or three nodes on it to increase your chances of success. (Nodes are the spots where leaves sprout from the stems and also the spot new roots will grow from.)
If you choose to propagate your string of dolphins plant into water, strip the leaves from the bottom node or two, to prevent rot when they sit in the water. Give your cutting fresh water each day, and roots will develop in a few weeks. Once you see roots developing, you can move your string of dolphins plant into its container filled with fresh new cacti/succulent potting soil. Just make a small hole for the root end of your cutting, then firm the soil gently around the plant. Water your cutting well to allow the soil and plant to settle in.
If you choose to propagate your string of dolphins plant into soil, it’s time to move it to its long-term container. All you need to do is lay the root end of the cutting flat on the surface of the soil. Keep the soil evenly moist until roots sprout and grow.
Aphids: Aphids are teeny weeny insects that come in a spectrum of colors and forms. These insects congregate on the undersides of foliage. Where aphids have been feeding, the leaves may be discolored or curled, withered, or misshapen. If you suspect an aphid infestation, first move any affected plants to quarantine.
The simplest way to get rid of aphids is to use a jet of water from your garden hose to spray them off the plants. You’ll need to repeat this treatment more than once for it to be effective. Another option is to create a homemade spray from a gallon of warm water, a few drops of dish soap, and a tablespoon of neem oil.
For more information, see our article All About Aphids, and How to Kill Them.
Mealybugs: Mealybugs look more like wisps of white cotton than they look like insects, but don’t underestimate the damage these insects can do. They feed on plants by inserting their needle-like mouth parts and sucking out the liquid. Areas where mealybugs have been feeding may turn yellow or have curled foliage. You may also see sticky areas the bugs leave behind, which can encourage sooty mold.
Mealybug infestations can be promoted by either overwatering or overfertilization. If you suspect a mealybug infestation, first quarantine your plant or plants so they can’t spread the infestation to others. Then you can remove the mealybugs by spraying them with a jet of water from the garden hose. This will require several rounds of treatment before it is effective. You can also remove the mealybugs from the plant with a Q-Tip dipped in rubbing alcohol.
For more information, see our article How to Fight Mealybugs.
Root Rot: Visible symptoms of root rot can include yellowed or withered foliage that may drop from the plant. In order to know for sure that root rot is what you are dealing with, you will need to perform an inspection of the plant’s roots.
Gently lift the plant, roots and all, from its soil and carefully shake away the excess dirt. Look for sections of the roots that are dark colored, slimy, or have an unpleasant smell. Using a clean, sterilized pair of gardening shears, cut these areas away. (To clean and sterilize your shears, soak them in half water and half rubbing alcohol for five minutes. Then rinse them with clear water and let them air dry.)
After you’ve cut affected sections away, move the plant into a new container with fresh new succulent/cacti mix. You can reuse the container once it has been cleaned and sterilized. You should not include your clippings or the dirt from the original container in a compost heap, or you risk spreading the disease when the compost is put to use.
Root rot is caused by excess moisture, so you may need to take steps to increase drainage of the soil, like adding more perlite to the mixture. You may need to scale back your watering, making sure only to add water when the soil in the container has dried completely.
Scale: Once scale insects have attached to a plant to feed, they don’t move from the spot. This and their unusual appearance makes it easy to mistake the scale insects as bumps on the plant’s stems or branches. Where scale insects have been feeding, you may also find a sticky clear substance called honeydew.
Quarantine your affected plants before beginning treatment to stop the spread of scale. You can make a homemade spray to repel scale insects out of a gallon of warm water, a few drops of dish soap, and a tablespoon of neem oil. It may take repeated treatments to solve your scale problem.
For more information, see our article How to Control Scale Insects.
Spider Mites: Spider mites are tiny white or red spiders about the size of the period at the end of this sentence. You may notice discolored foliage or foliage that drops from the plant where these little spiders have been feeding. The spiders congregate on the undersides of leaves, where they also may leave webbing behind.
First, quarantine your affected plants so they don’t spread spider mites throughout your garden. The simplest way to handle spider mites is to simply knock them off the plant with a high-pressure jet of water from the garden hose. This treatment may require repetition before it’s effective.
For more information, see our article How to Fight Spider Mites.
Now you know exactly how to take care of a string of dolphins plant, from planting to propagation, and even how to troubleshoot their most common problems.