Radermachera sinica, more commonly known as the China doll plant or just “China doll”, is also called the serpent tree or emerald tree, because of the plant’s beautiful and very glossy “emerald” leaves. These evergreen trees are part of the Bignoniaceae family, and are related to the Cape honeysuckle and Orange Bells plant.
These charming trees are native to southern China, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and can reach impressive heights of over 90 feet in their natural habitats. In recent times, China doll has become very popular as a houseplant — and is much more modestly-sized when grown indoors.
While Radermachera sinica grown outdoors produce short-lived, night-blooming, flowers, China doll plants grown indoors don’t usually flower. They are, instead, treasured for their striking leaves and will instantly make any space look and feel brighter. China doll plants are not the easiest houseplants to care for, but they can thrive with the right love and care.
About China Doll Plants
- The China doll plant is a broadleaf evergreen best known for its glossy, lush green leaves. As a houseplant, Radermachera sinica will offer the appearance of a tiny little tree precisely because it is a tree; in its native habitat, it can rival the height of any oak tree. It can bring a touch of nature to any home or office space!
- China doll plants have only risen to popularity as houseplants in recent years, but are already widely available in most regions. Growing them outdoors is only possible in warmer regions, such as (in the US) parts of Hawaii and Southern Florida. When grown indoors, China doll plants can perform well almost anywhere.
- China doll plants are fairly affordable, and are offered for sale in the United States and Europe.
- This beautiful plant is, as the name suggests, native to China — but also to nearby subtropical regions that include Taiwan and the Philippines.
- China doll plants are moderately fast growers when cared for properly indoors.
- China doll plants need around five hours of bright, but indirect, sunlight every day to thrive. They also require plenty of moisture, or in short, conditions that mimic the subtropical regions they originated from.
- Seasoned indoor gardeners have been known to describe China doll plants as “easy to care for”. Do not let that fool you into believing that Radermachera sinica is a low-maintenance houseplant, because nothing could be further from the truth. These picky plants have very precise needs, and failing to meet them can cause your China doll plant to die (or at least to become very unhappy). Radermachera sinica is also easily stressed by changes in its environment.
- This plant is not especially vulnerable to pests and diseases, but spider mites, scale, and mealybug may damage it if you keep your China doll plant around other houseplants. If soil conditions are excessively most, Radermachera sinica may fall prey to fungal infections such as leaf spot.
- China doll plants are not toxic to dogs, cats, or children, and are therefore very safe to keep as houseplants.
China Doll Plant Features: An Overview
- China doll plants are evergreen plants (technically speaking, trees) with beautiful bipinnate leaves that divide into small glossy fresh green “emerald” leaflets, their most striking feature.
- While Radermachera sinica can reach heights of more than 90 feet (30 meters) when it grows outdoors in the right region, China doll houseplants are usually four to six feet tall, roughly translating to one to two meters. These plants have a nice spread of one to three feet (well under a meter) wide.
- While Radermachera sinica can grow white and yellow flowers in the wild, during the summer, they are exceptionally short-lived — blooming at night and wilting the next morning. When grown as a houseplant, China doll rarely flowers.
- This broadleaf evergreen plant loves moisture and thrives in indirect sunlight — lots of bright light filtered through partial shade is best for this picky specimen.
- Warmer and more humid temperatures are best for this plant with Asian origins. China doll plants thrive in temperatures that are between 65 °F and 75 °F (18 to 24 °C). While they can technically survive in dryer conditions, they much prefer more humid climates and will need to be watered regularly, in well-draining soil, when grown indoors.
- China doll plants are pretty hard to maintain, but their beautiful look is worth the effort. This plant will need to be pruned frequently to keep up its pretty appearance.
Growing China Doll Plants
China doll plants thrive in very specific conditions and need regular care; if the right conditions are not met, your Radermachera sinica will begin to “protest” very quickly.
These subtropical plants strongly prefer bright, but indirect, sunlight to thrive indoors. When China doll plants are exposed to full, direct, sun for prolonged periods of time, the plant’s fine leaves can burn and develop leaf drop. If you live in a brighter area, a location near a window but in the shade of a tree or other large object is perfect.
Because China doll plants need a minimum of five hours of consistent sunlight every day, people growing them indoors in more shady, overcast, climes would, on the other hand, be advised to acquire a grow light to support their plant’s growth and health. Temperatures between 65 and 75 °F are best for China doll plants, and a grow light ensures that your China doll has access to enough warmth and light.
These plants love moist and humid living conditions and should be planted in a well-draining soil mix with some perlite or sand.
China doll plants are rootbound plants that do not tolerate repotting well. As such, only repot Radermachera sinica if you absolutely have to!
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They are easily stressed, leading to failure to thrive, and cope very poorly with changes. Constantly changing their environment and living conditions could result in their death. To keep this plant in good condition and looking its best, you will need to prune it regularly. You should prune your China doll every couple of months when you notice “feral”, deformed, or drying stems. As an alternative to repotting, gardeners will want to know that root pruning is also possible. If you are hoping to keep your China doll plant small enough to fit on your desk, root pruning will prove to be invaluable.
In terms of fertilization, proper China doll plant care calls for regular liquid fertilizer, on a balanced monthly regimen, during the plant’s growth stage, which occurs during the spring and summer. This fertilizer should be diluted to 50 percent. Once Radermachera sinica is no longer in its growth stage, fertilizer should only be used sparingly, every other month.
Watering China Doll Plants
Making sure that your China doll plant gets the right amount of water is of great importance — and although you’ll keep hearing that China doll plants love moist environments, overwatering your Radermachera sinica is as damaging to this beautiful plant as failing to water it enough would be.
Rather than watering your China doll plant on a regular schedule, offer it water whenever the top inch of its soil has dried. The speed at which this happens will depend on the temperature in your home and change with the season. You don’t need to prod around to see if the soil is dry yet every day, but check in with your plant regularly.
To ensure that your China doll plant does not develop root rot or other problems, it is equally vital to ensure that the pot in which you keep your Radermachera sinica can drain well, through holes at the base of the pot. Once the tray you use to catch the excess water fills, take care to empty it to protect the roots of your China doll plant.
Propagating China Doll Plants
This beautiful plant is challenging to propagate, but if you are committed to trying, you have two options — the China doll plant can be propagated through cuttings or from seed.
To propagate a China doll plant from cuttings:
- Choose lush, fresh, stems to propagate a China doll plant. Avoid woody, older, stems.
- Cut a length of between two and six inches from the tip of the stem.
- Gently detach any leaflets present toward the base of your cutting, leaving only a few leaflets at the very tip of your cutting.
- Next, you will need to dip the bottom of your fresh cutting in some rooting hormone powder. Tap — gently — to eliminate any excess. This will support your cutting in its growth.
- Your cutting is now ready to be placed in a pot with drainage holes at the bottom and a rich commercial soil mix, which you should water ahead of time. Submerge around one third of the cutting in soil to allow it to begin taking root.
- Cover your brand new cutting with a plastic covering, such as a plastic bag, which should slide tightly over the pot in which you have placed it. This will help to seal the moisture in and encourage the cutting to grow.
- It will take a few weeks for your China doll plant cutting to begin sprouting. Do look to see what’s going on every week or so, but don’t interfere with the cutting too much.
Once your China doll plant cutting begins to grow, giving the tip a little pinch is strongly recommended — this step will help your plant to begin branching out. In its early stages, China doll will not grow very quickly. When it becomes big enough, however, you can transplant it to a larger pot, taking care to keep the soil around the root system in place as you gently place it into a bigger pot.
It is also possible to propagate the China doll plant from seed. Once the seeds are mature, you can harvest the long-strip capsule, which should subsequently be allowed to dry. From this dried capsule, which should be cleaned and rubbed, the seed can emerge.
Dried China doll seeds can be stored over the winter — and indeed, if you’re looking to grow a China doll plant, you will easily be able to find seeds for sale. To activate the seeds, soak them in slightly warm water for three to four hours. Following soaking, the seeds can be planted (when growing China doll plants indoors, at any time of the year). Place the seed close to the top of the soil, covering it only lightly.
The next steps are identical to those you would take if you were growing a China doll plant from a cutting — make sure the soil is nice and moist, and cover the seed with a plastic covering. Wait for it to begin sprouting, which can take some time.
Do not be disheartened if your cuttings or seeds do not succeed the first time you try to propagate a China doll plant. It’s not you; this plant is notoriously challenging.
China doll plants, beautiful evergreens that grow into large trees in their native subtropical regions in Asia, make a great addition to any plant lover’s home. If you would love to begin growing a little jungle in your living room, Radermachera sinica is a must have.
While China doll plants are unquestionably tricky to take care of, the result pays off! As a bonus, once you familiarize yourself with this plant’s needs, maintaining it will become a lot easier.
This humidity-loving plant, famous for its lush green leaflets that shine like emeralds, will look amazing as long as you remember to place it in indirect but bright sunlight, prune it every once in a while, and water it frequently — but not too much!
The China doll plant’s leaves truly are majestic, and this plant will reward you with its beauty ever day so long as you take the time to learn how to grow and care for it properly.