By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer
More often known as emerald tree or serpent tree, china doll (Radermachera sinica) is a delicate-looking plant that hales from the warm climates of southern and eastern Asia. China doll plants in gardens generally reach heights of 25 to 30 feet, although the tree can reach much greater heights in its natural environment. Indoors, china doll plants remain shrubby, usually topping out at 4 to 6 feet. Read on for information about growing and caring for china doll plants in the garden.
Growing china doll plants in gardens is feasible only in USDA plant hardiness zones 10 and 11. However, china doll has become a popular houseplant, valued for its glossy, divided leaves.
China doll plants in the garden generally prefer full sun but benefit from partial shade in hot, sunny climates. The best location is one with moist, rich, well-drained soil, often near a wall or fence where the plant is protected from strong winds. China doll plants will not tolerate frost.
Care of outdoor china doll plants includes watering. Water outdoor china doll plant regularly so the soil never becomes completely dry. As a general rule, an inch of water per week via watering or rainfall is sufficient – or when the top 1 to 2 inches of soil are dry. A 2-3 inch layer of mulch keeps the roots cool and moist.
Apply a balanced, timed-released fertilizer every three months from spring through autumn.
Grow china doll plants indoors outside of their hardiness zone in a container filled with a soil-based potting mix. Place the plant where it receives several hours of bright, indirect light per day, but avoid direct, intense sunlight.
Water as needed to keep the soil consistently moist, but never soaking wet. China doll prefers normally warm room temperatures between 70 and 75 F. (21-24 C.) during the day, with nighttime temps about 10 degrees cooler.
Apply a balanced, water-soluble fertilizer once or twice a month during the growing season.
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Read more about China Doll Plants
The china doll plant is a fairly recent houseplant, having only been introduced since the early 1980s. It’s a fairly compact plant that has became very popular due to how tolerant it is of the warm, low-humidity air of most modern homes.
It has medium to dark green glossy leaves that almost look a bit oily. The leaves are divided into separate leaflets and are generally thin and delicate looking. The blooms are white (but it rarely blooms in the home).
In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about planting, caring for, and preventing pests and diseases for the wonderful china doll plant.
Fungal diseases are quite common with China Doll plants, so you will have to be on the lookout for them. These diseases usually present as brown spots on leaves, and they can spread very quickly.
It is important that you quickly remove any browning leaves from your plant as soon as you notice them. This will help you save your plant and keep it in good overall condition.
Root rot is another common issue that is generally caused by over watering. You will need to make a point of feeling the soil before you water you plant. This way you won’t have to worry about giving it too much water, which can cause all sorts of very serious problems.
Although it can be less successful than with other types of plants, rooting a China doll cutting can result in a new plant. Cut 2 inches of new growth toward the tip of the plant (green wood only, nothing old and tough). Remove the lower leaves from your cutting, leaving just a few leaflets attached at the tip. Dip the bottom half of the cutting in a rooting hormone powder and tap off any excess. Then stick the cutting in moist potting mix and cover it with a plastic bag to trap as much humidity as possible. Keep the bagged cutting in a bright, warm spot and give it a gentle tug every few weeks to see if it is rooting. As soon as the cutting roots and begins to grow, pinch the tip to encourage good branching.
I have a China doll plant inside, heaps of light. What does it mean when the leaves dry up only in some parts of the plant? Is it overwatering or not enough?
Dried up leaves can be the result of overwatering, underwatering, or other problems:
The best way to tell if you are over- or underwatering is to check the soil each time you water. Make sure the soil right at the top becomes dry or almost dry before you water, but don't let it stay dry for days. Also see these articles:
China Doll is a beautiful bushy houseplant that has lush, finely divided leaves giving it an elegant appearance. As young China doll plants grow, they become trees with woody stems and a thick, lush canopy.
Young China doll plants are small and compact, making them perfect desk decor or a lovely addition to brightly lit counter tops, tables, or window sills. More mature plants can be used to help cover blank, empty walls, to soften the harsh lines of large furniture, or fill empty corners.
China Doll Questions?
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Grow China doll in a medium to bright spot. The brighter the light, the faster this houseplant will grow. If it's grown in a spot that's a little too dim, the new growth may be lanky and look stretched. If this happens, give your China doll a haircut to encourage more bushy growth and move it to a brighter spot.
Water China doll enough to keep the soil moist, but never soggy and saturated. This may be once a week or so, depending on how large your houseplant is, how large the China doll's pot is, how much light it receives, and the temperature.
Like most houseplants, China doll appreciates abundant humidity levels and can sulk a bit if the air is too dry, especially in winter months. If your space has dry air, you can increase relative humidity around your plant by grouping it with other houseplants (they naturally release a little moisture into the air as they breathe, so a cluster of houseplants can act as little humidifiers for one another) or by growing your plant over a large, shallow tray filled with water and rocks, sand, or pebbles. Just be sure the bottom of the pot stays above the water so that the China doll doesn't drown.
China doll benefits from being fertilized a couple of times a year (in spring and summer when they're actively growing). You can fertilize China doll houseplants more frequently if you wish -- doing so will make it grow faster.
China doll is not recommended for human or animal consumption.
Indoors: High light
Indoors: Medium light
|Family:||Bignoniaceae (big-no-nih-AY-see-ee) (Info)|
|Genus:||Radermachera (rad-er-MOK-er-uh) (Info)|
|Species:||sinica (SIN-ee-ka) (Info)|
Tropicals and Tender Perennials
Requires consistently moist soil do not let dry out between waterings
USDA Zone 9a: to -6.6 °C (20 °F)
USDA Zone 9b: to -3.8 °C (25 °F)
USDA Zone 10a: to -1.1 °C (30 °F)
USDA Zone 10b: to 1.7 °C (35 °F)
Grow outdoors year-round in hardiness zone
Can be grown as an annual
Suitable for growing in containers
Collect seedhead/pod when flowers fade allow to dry
Allow pods to dry on plant break open to collect seeds
This plant is said to grow outdoors in the following regions:
Elk Grove, California(2 reports)
Foothill Farms, California
South Yuba City, California
Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
On Mar 19, 2018, CateSew from Brazil, IN wrote:
Received our China Doll in a planter in 1988, when my husband bought his business. It sits on the deck every year until frost then comes inside for the winter. Every year I prune it down to sticks and every year it comes back with new growth. It gets miracle grow once a month and rain/water twice a week or when the rain hits. I never leave standing water in the saucer however. Hate the bugs that come in the winter, causing it to drop its leaves and branches, and trying to find a solution that'll kill them permanently. I usually spray with solution of water, dish soap and rubbing alcohol, which seems to kill the current ones. But then a whole new regiment appears and I start over until I can put it outside.
On Oct 8, 2016, wildrosePhx from Phoenix, AZ wrote:
I have 2 of these China Doll's, both indoors. the first is smaller about 2 ft tall. it lost several branches and quite a few leaves when I brought it home. but after transplanting it it came back nicely. the 2nd I brought home today from the plant nursery. it was in the " quick sale" section for plants that need a little help. it's in a 10" pot ( that was cracked) and is 4 ft tall and beautiful. Now that I know what it is and have done a little reading on it, I hope I can do it justice. I read it likes to be root bound in well drained soil, bright indirect light 5-6 hrs daily. no problem in Arizona! I will have to transplant the larger one as the plastic pot is a goner, but it should come back after it adjusts. The nursery suggested cactus mix added to potting soil for drainage. Funny th. read more ing though, they didn't know much about it other than the name. the 2 will make nice additions to my place I have moved into 2-3 months ago. I just have to keep them out of the Evap cooler drafts. They will like the moisture it gives, and I'm enjoying their company .
On May 25, 2014, piripet3 from Melbourne,
I planted 2 China Doll bushes in my backyard some 10 years ago which grew very quickly to 30'. One was over-shadowed by a Silky Oak, but the other thrived to produce masses of lovely trumpet-like white flowers. I love them both, and so does the huge family of shrieking Lorrikeets from a neighbouring palm tree, which now eat and play in our blossoming China Doll! I have found many green pods under the tree for the first time, today, which I popped, and to my surprise, a milky white cream squirted on my face.
Does anyone know what that Milky Cream is made of? Could it have any medicinal properties? It felt very good on my skin as I experimented on the back of my hands.
On Jan 2, 2014, lryan925 from Hilton Head Island, SC wrote:
The name of a tree on my property was a mystery to me for over a year. A nursery owner grew some of the seeds from it and gave me one. When I took it home, I realize that it looked just like my China Doll houseplant. What a surprise to do some research and discover that my tree was actually an overgrown China Doll houseplant. The photos on this site helped to positively identify the tree. The tree is about 30 feet tall. High winds will frequently break off a small branch.
My houseplant loses leaves when I don't water it enough.
On Jun 6, 2013, cbplanter from woodbridge, VA (Zone 7a) wrote:
I have China Dolls indoors for 3 yrs now & have been careful about watering as I have killed them in the past. Started as store bought 4 inch tall plants, now they are each almost 3 ft tall. Replanted after year 2 and now, in third year, both plants bloomed! Tiny white flowers on ends of spikes, no fragrance. Wish I could plant it outside but it gets too cold in Woodbridge VA. Plants sit near north facing window but thanks to 2 skylights, get lots of bright light, not direct. No bug problems.
On Jun 1, 2013, sassynay from Houston, TX wrote:
None of you have mentioned that this plant has an enormous root system when planted in the ground. They run right up to my home's foundation and I whack them off when I see them. Has anyone had foundation problems or problems with roots getting into plumbing? I really don't want to cut it down. It's beautiful and lives through all our Houston weather, even 5 days of 20 degree weather.
On Feb 2, 2011, Footplate from Auckland,
New Zealand wrote:
Extremely helpful comments. We have one blocking the view out of a main window. I want to cut it back considerably but don't want to kill it. I now know that I had better top it without delay.
A chance to use my new pole saw!
On Feb 28, 2010, ReneeFraser from Auckland,
New Zealand wrote:
We live in New Zealand. I didn't actually plant our China Doll tree in our backyard - it was here when I moved in here. But the Eastern Rosellas LOVE the seeds as well as all the other birds.
If you don't want a very tall tree then I don't advise planting it outside! Our one is VERY tall - about 30-35ft. And it has 5 trunks!! It needs a good pruning. The branches are over the roof of our house.
We have our kids swing hanging from one of the branches.
I haven't ever seen a China Doll tree anywhere else. I had no idea what it was and have been searching on the net for AGES so I was really happy to finally find out what it is.
I have to say that the weather here in winter is very wet and cold - we get frosts also. And our China Doll is at the back of our hou. read more se - the shadiest side of our section. So it doesn't get a lot of sunlight even in Summer. There are Impatiens (Busy Lizzies) around there. they are thriving. It's very shady.
And I don't have to do anything to the China Doll. I've never watered it. though that would require quite a lot of water given its size!
On Nov 1, 2009, SCROUNGE from Richmond, TX wrote:
I started growing "China Doll Trees' about 15 year ago when my wife bought one as a pot plant. I transplanted my first one at our old house and the first year I thought a hard freeze had killed it. I then cut it down to about 2' in height. The next Spring it split into 3 trunks and grew to a height of approximately 30'. After we move into our new house in 2001 my wife bought another "China Doll" for a pot plant. In 2002 I transplanted it to the back yard. When Hurricane "Rita" hit the Gulf Coast the first gust of wind snapped the tree in two. I was left whth a 6" stick, 2" in diameter, with only 2 little limbs left on it. My wife begged me to get rid of it, but I told her lets see what it will do. That was one of the best decissions I made. The tree split into to trunks where it had been . read more topped of by "Rita", and has grown to a height of approximately 30'. Three years later we were hit by Hurricane "Ike" which keft it leaning at about a 40 degree angle. I used an anchor and a come a long to try to straighten it upright again. The tree still has a slight lean but is still going strong. I really love the fact that I can go out and see new growth daily. Both trees are doing great. My step daughter bought our old house so they get to enjoy the first one I planted. I summited 2 pictures I hope everyone enjoys them as much as I enjoy my tree.
On Sep 3, 2009, CherokeeGreg from Fresno, CA (Zone 9a) wrote:
I received this plant about 10 years ago it was dying I planted it in my garden. Its now about 15 ft tall. It blooms these great white flowers. I love the plant. Its one of my favorite garden plants I should say tree.
On Sep 1, 2009, Bad_Brad from Carlsbad, CA wrote:
Great house plant, but be careful about putting in the ground, it grows like a weed here in Carlsbad CA. Mine grew to
30 feet in about 3-4 years, and it's flowering, and I see a lot of seed pods! Very nice folage. Will upload a picture of the flowers and seed pods.
Indoors, they always fall to mealy bugs. I live close to the ocean, so it's always moist, and mealy's just love my place. Only hard core chemicals knock them down inside. I don't seem to have a problem with the tree outside.
It's a pleasure, but needs lots of light and no bugs inside. Keep it moist as best you can without over watering.
On Jul 25, 2009, uncmtbal from Harlingen, TX wrote:
Planted by a previous resident of RV Park, tree survived '08 H'cane Dolly and has reached height of 20', stately and graceful. Many branches tipped with multiple tendrils, blossoms appear high on tree, but seed pods not apparent. Propagation said to be by opening dried seed-pod. Do those tendrils hold seeds? Tree stands in direct sunlight, temps have run 100F, yet it prospers w/o pampering. Seeking nursery w/plants suitable for outdoor sites.
On Jun 11, 2009, keallan from San Jose, CA wrote:
I've owned my old friend since 1991, and we've been through a lot (moves, relationships, etc.). In that time It's been a 2" house plant bought from Long's Drugs, to a growing plant that subsequently lost almost all it's leaves to a plant that's sat outside on the deck in diffused light (with steady watering from an irrigation drip system) to now a tree that's planted in my backyard. These plants are warriors, so don't give up on them. Just adjust the lighting or watering and they will come back. When I first planted it in the ground, I was worried it would fail due to heavy sun and wind (btw, I also planted another china doll right next to it for aesthetic purposes), but I am happy to report it's thriving! I have it on an irrigation schedule and it's actually growing more sprouts along. read more its trunk (up until now it would drop the lower leaves in favor of the upper), so I'm anticipating branches at some point. Waiting to see how it does in the heat of the summer, but all are looking good so far. DON'T GIVE UP ON THESE GUYS! They are very resilient. 18 years and a lot of moving and still doing fine says that they are there for the long run. :) It's nice to know there are some steady-eddies in the world and my china doll is one of them. It's 15 feet tall and growing daily.
On Jun 1, 2008, masabimulawa from Windsor, CA wrote:
I bought my China Doll at Long's in the Fall 2001, in a 4" plastic cup for US $2.00. Planted it in a 10" clay pot and kept it indoors. Two years and several transplants later, a friend suggested putting it outdoors in the south-facing patio. It loved it there and grew and grew and grew three trunks. Luscious and beautiful and so very green and healthy! Then it began to lose leaves and branches and I almost gave up on it. But a lightbulb went off and I thought, 'rootbound!' Sure enough. Transplanted it into a large winebarrel three months ago, but leaves and branches continued to drop. Again at a loss, until I noticed that the tree wasn't set deep enough and surface roots and rootlets were exposed. Added about three inches of soil to cover them well and now it's much happier. It's grown tal. read more ler--about 12 feet, but not fuller yet, and it's still losing leaves and branches although not as much. I mixed organic slow release alkaline fertilizer into the soil and it gets frequent waterings. I don't let it dry out. It has never bloomed so I'm delighted to read here that someone else's tree bloomed after 15 years. Hope I live long enough. and I hope it grows fuller this summer. Maybe it'll bloom next spring! I'll keep you all posted. It certainly has been a challenge AND a pleasure!
On Feb 11, 2008, BuckyFellini from Sacramento, CA wrote:
I live in Sacramento, CA and have one that I have named "Lazarus", as it came back from the apparent dead and is now quite a tree. Originally it was a lush houseplant that almost seemed fake, as it never shed a leaf or seemed to grow at all. In the course of one week, it lost all of its foliage and was little more than four dry twigs in a pot. For some reason, I decided to merely put it out on the patio rather than throw it away. After about a month, a new leaf popped up from one of the twigs and it grew steadily. I planted it in the ground and it is now 18 feet tall and looks like a giant green-headed Q-Tip. It has survived scorching summers, freezing winters and has been blown over in storms twice. For anyone who fears its delicacy, don't. This is one hardy plant.
On Feb 8, 2008, Florenza from Pahrump, NV wrote:
I purchased my China Doll at Wallmart and have had it in the house with sun from the window. It has been repotted into a larger pot but this spring I will repot it into a very large pot and put it on the patio. It is so beautiful and full and too large for my house altho only about 31/2 ft. tall. I don't have the heart to trim it back. I have had it 2 years and will see what happens this summer in our heat. I too am in Pahrump Nev. Florence.
On Oct 30, 2007, mdnbb from Upland, CA wrote:
I have had this plant on the outside patio for about 2 years and have moved it into my bedroom in a larger pot. Now that I have transplanted it the leaves are dropping.
On Oct 4, 2007, davidmacmanus from Havana, FL wrote:
There is a rather large Radermachera growing in Tallahassee,FL zone 8b(about 35 feet high, 4.5"diameter). From a distance it looks much like the China Berry Tree (Melia azederach)-however the trumpet-like cream colored flowers and long catalpa-like seed pods reveal that it is a China Doll .Because it has not shown any cold injury I suspect that this particular tree may have extra cold hardiness.I have collected seed from it and have germinated some.I am uncertain whether the seedlings will have the cold tolerance of the parent tree-I am hoping that someone in 8a or 7b will trial seeds from this tree which I have been sharing for free.
On Jul 16, 2007, Dalar from Hamilton,
I bought an Emerald Tree and it wasn't growing much for a few months, but it wasn't dying either. The tag it came with had no name, but just said partial shade.. I did some online research, and found out it's meant to grow a lot bigger than it was!
So, I repotted it (it turns out it was root-bound) and put it next to the west window for late afternoon sun, and all the new growth leaves were twice the size and the entire plant doubled in size in a month, and it become root-bound once again and I repotted it again!
So if yours isn't doing much, check and see if it's root bound and needs repotting. It seems to like to have lots of soil, and sun.
On Jun 4, 2007, jopaula from Baton Rouge, LA wrote:
I have one of these in my backyard. I live in an urban forest. It is planted near an oak tree, never gets fertilized, and I have many blossoms on it. We have mild winters here and it's over 30 feet tall.
On Apr 29, 2007, stressfree from Austin, TX wrote:
I purchased a China Doll about 6 months ago and am using it as a house plant. In fact I have two. My first one seem to sit and do nothing until I moved it near a window with more light. Then it went crazy and has doubled in size in about two months. It is now about 12 inches tall. The second one was about 12 inches when I purchased it and is now now almost 24 inches tall. It also is a house plant sitting near a well lighted window area with about 4 hours direct sun each day. I would like to prune both of them to make them more dense but am afraid to do so. I live in Austin, TX.
On Jul 26, 2006, Captleemo from Angleton, TX (Zone 9a) wrote:
I bought my house in 98 and these plants were very small and I had no idea what they were but as they grew I thought they were very neat looking. I asked numerous people what they were and nobody knew. Just several months ago I took a few branches and flowers to the Texas A&M agriculture station in Angleton and was informed that they were China doll trees. The one closest to the front door is darker green and is the one that has flowers and is now growing seed pods galore. There are two clusters of about ten tunks each coming out of the ground and the largest trunk is about eight inches in diameter. I am not very knowledgable about plant care but these trees are thriving regardless. The tallest one is about twenty feet tall so far.
On Jun 15, 2006, isom from Mission BC,
Canada (Zone 8b) wrote:
I grew this plant indoors for a few years till it became big enough that I put it outside each summer. I had 3 - one I gave to a friend & another, someone stole when it was outside in summer. The one I kept grew fast & when I transplanted it into a huge pot, it became too awkward to bring inside each winter. We live in zone 8b so I thought I'd leave it outside under the carport for some protection. It lost its leaves but the came back next spring even more lush. I kept it outside like that for a few years.
One spring after I had moved it from under the carport, we had an unexpected freezing rain. That killed my Radermachera as it had already started into new spring growth.
I now have 6 of them & when they get big enough, I plan to plant 2 of them in the ground. read more to see how they fare. Since plants is pots drop 2 climate zones, I figure it will work fine & won't start new spring growth too early. If not, they're easy to start & grow like crazy.
On Jan 28, 2006, winddancer2003 from Hayward, CA (Zone 9b) wrote:
This tree was chewed on by my cats as a house plant. Died back and the container was set outside. It then began to come back. I kept replanting it in increasingly larger containers until the trunk was 3" in diameter and root ball too large for patio container. Planted in back yard and it is now approximately 25' tall and blooms with fragarant off white trumpet shaped flowers in the Spring. Branches are like very large fans and it also graces the yards of two neighbors. The only thing I do is water it in the Summer months.
On Sep 14, 2005, Samarkand from Santa Barbara, CA wrote:
My plant originated in a group of seedlings, about 15-20, in a
commercial 4 inch pot. When overgrown I divided to individual
plants, later planting one in my landscape. It grew to a 4 inch diameter trunk with a large top which blocked my neighbors view, so I cut it to the ground. Now I have a new neighbor so
I let a sucker grow to 6 feet at present. The foliage is to me
spectacular, my favorite!
On Aug 13, 2005, Dave_in_Devon from Torquay,
United Kingdom (Zone 9b) wrote:
I live in part of the UK where winter temperatures zone-wise vary between 9B and 10A. I bought a tiny (about 5" high) plant of this in April and immediately transferred it to a, 8" diameter pot. It was placed outside in May and so far (mid August) it has grow into a fine, very bushy specimen 2'8" high. The foliage is superb with an exceptional glass-like gloss. Although it does not 'rocket skywards' it certainly seems to enjoy conditions out of doors. I'm pretty certain it will be able to withstand the very occasional, very light, short lived frosts that occur here, but I'm not so certain about its ability to withstand upwards of 4 months of very dull, wet, cool weather. I will probably protect it this winter and plant out in a final position during spring 2006.
After a terrible winter (2005/06) the young plant was killed back to nearly ground level. It had not been protected and endured some of the worst and most prolonged winds we have had for many years. Dead stems were pruned away in early April and it resumed growth quickly afterwards. It reached over 2m. high by the end of the summer and has remained in full leaf throughout winter. It will only be lightly pruned this time and will hopefully reach 3m. or more this year.
On Oct 11, 2004, ladyannne from Merced, CA (Zone 9a) wrote:
This one was added to my "Don't Give Me Another, I Kill These" list. I can grow over a hundred house varieties, but not this one and I love it so. : (
On Jul 23, 2003, LCC from Houston, TX wrote:
I had this plant as an indoor plant, when I decided to plant it outside it grew to be about 20 fts. the trunk is about 4 inches in diameter and blooms in the spring all the time. During winter it is the greener tree in my back yard, I love it
On Jul 14, 2003, shell357 from Chula Vista, CA wrote:
This plant started out as a potted plant that kept shedding its leaves all over the carpet so I planted it outside near the house on the eastern side where it gets mostly shade. (I am worried about the root system getting too close to the house. if you have info on this please e-mail me). It has grown close to 20 feet and has beautiful large white trumpet-like flowers which give way to long seed pods. It is doing well, but some of it yellows and drops leaves during the winter which gets messy. It likes to be kept damp, I have it in an area that has a timed sprinkler system.
On Jul 9, 2003, nipajo from Dallas, TX (Zone 8b) wrote:
i have never planted it in the soil, i have it in a pot that i bring out each spring. i have seen the tree get quite tall here in dallas in the ground. but it seems so delicate that i am afraid to put it in the ground.