Hoya plant care

Hoya plant: how to care for a hoya

The wax hoya plant makes a comeback in myriad guises. Words Jane Perrone, illustration Patrick Morgan

For many, the first encounter with a Hoya plant ends in disappointment. It starts with falling in love with a single, fleshy, heart-shaped leaf standing upright and alone in a pot. Most buyers assume their leaf will eventually grow some friends: they are crestfallen to find that it remains alone forever – ironic for a plant often bought as a sweetheart’s keepsake. The plant in question, Hoya kerrii, will only reproduce from cuttings that include a section of stem, so a single leaf won’t die, but won’t multiply either.

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Phlebodium aureum or fern
© Agata Wierzbicka

Hoyas were dismissed as ‘your grandma’s plants’ for years and years, but that’s doing them a disservice. In the past couple of years, they’ve undergone a huge revival. The range of species and hybrids available has expanded from the two stalwart specimens you’ll find in every houseplant book: Hoya carnosa and Hoya bella.

Hoyas defy the usual (and, it has to be said, deeply artificial) categorisation of houseplants as either ‘flowering’ or ‘foliage’, but this genus offers the best of both worlds. One of the first things I bought when I got my own place was a variegated Hoya carnosa. I was captivated by its trailing stems clothed in glossy, green leaves edged in creamy white, but the half-globe clusters of furry, shell-pink flowers that followed were so weirdly compelling and beautiful that I wanted to adopt the Victorian tradition of using Hoya blooms as buttonholes.

Hoya carnosa has a mild scent, but some Hoya species pack a real punch when it comes to perfume, especially in the early evening. One of the most distinctive species is Hoya linearis, which has long, thin leaves like fuzzy green beans, and pure-white flowers with a buttery, lemony scent. It looks stunning trailing from a hanging basket, as the blooms are best viewed from below. And I am eagerly awaiting the flowering of my young plant of an as yet unidentified Hoya species, after hearing that its red and yellow flowers smell of sweet fudge.

Hoyas are tropical plants that hail from Asia, in particular China, India and Malaysia. Spotting them in the wild can be tricky, as most of the couple of hundred known species are epiphytic trailing vines that perch in trees and scramble through branches. Hoyas will happily trail from a shelf or windowsill, but you can get inventive growing them up circles of wire, mini obelisks or bent bamboo, held in place with ties or butterfly clips. Some can grow to an intimidating size given time, but if space is limited, Hoya curtisii is a miniature species with mottled, grey-green leaves and flowers in pink and lime green.

How to grow hoya

The key to growing good hoyas is emulating the fast drainage their roots experience when anchored in a cleft in a tree: in other words, soggy compost is the enemy. Allowing the growing medium to dry out between waterings helps, but the key is potting plants in a porous mix: I tend to use two parts peat-free Melcourt SylvaGrow to one part perlite and one part finely milled orchid bark, but every grower has their own recipe. Many hoyas will be happy with bright indirect light, but do some research if you buy a new plant, as their light requirements vary: Hoya kerrii needs lots of sunshine, whereas Hoya linearis likes partial shade.

So what’s not to like about these plants? Perhaps their Achilles’ heel is the propensity for the flowers to drip nectar; Hoya kerrii, with red nectar that stains soft furnishings, is one of the worst offenders. But I’m happy to put a sheet under the flowers to catch the drips. It’s a price worth paying for these stunning plants.

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How to propagate hoyas

Stem cuttings are easy to strike from most Hoya species, provided you follow a few simple rules. Remove a stem from the plant and divide it into sections, cutting so that you end up with two leaf nodes (the point where the leaf joins the stem), one at either end of each section. Remove the lower leaves and place into a glass of water or pot of damp compost with added perlite, and cover with a clear plastic bag to raise humidity. Within weeks, cuttings should start rooting to make a new plant, and you can offer admirers a baby plant of their own to take home.