Visual illusions, anything from shadow puppets to the art of M.C. Escher, have an entrancing quality. Many plant lovers enjoy the visual pun-play involved in raising plants that mimic other plants or animals, such as string of pearls (a.k.a. string of peas), Psychotria elata (a.k.a. hooker’s lips), or Orchis italica (the naked man orchid). If you’re that kind of plant owner, you are going to want to adopt a string of dolphins.
From a distance, the string of dolphins looks like a cute but ordinary succulent. It is a smallish plant, producing a cluster of vine-like trailing stems studded with delicate jade-green leaves. It isn’t until you get close that you can see each leaf is shaped like a tiny green dolphin, attached to the stem by its tail. If you’re looking for a plant to surprise your houseguests and spark conversation, a string of dolphins is a great choice.
Quick Guide to String of Dolphins
|Sun requirements||Bright indirect indoor light or dappled outdoor sunlight preferred|
|Hardiness/Zone||Hardy outdoors only in Zones 9b+|
|Water needs||Above average for a succulent, prefers not to dry out entirely|
|Toxicity||Poisonous to humans and pets|
|Primary growth season||May have a winter dormancy, or (indoors) may grow slowly year round|
|Typical size at maturity||Six inches tall, with trailing stems as long as three feet|
Growing Requirements for Senecio Peregrinus
String of dolphins has leaves that are so distinctively dolphin-like that all of its common names mention them (e.g., flying dolphins, dolphin necklace, or dolphin plant). It was created as a hybrid of Curio articulatus (a.k.a. candle plant) and Senecio rowleyanus (string of peas/string of pearls), and shares a lot of their care needs.
It is a little more finicky than some succulents, but it’s worth the effort. It can produce flowers, but when a plant’s leaves look like a dolphin flowers are sort of beside the point.
Where to Plant
It’s always a struggle to find suitable plants for west-, east- and north-facing windows, especially succulents, but a string of dolphins will be very happy there. It doesn’t like direct summer afternoon sunlight, and will tolerate bright indirect light.
If your string of dolphins gets a little too much sun, it may develop a temporary reddish pigmentation. This is common among succulents, like coppertone sedum. It won’t hurt the plant, and you may even like the look of it, although it may slightly stunt the plant’s growth.
Note: If your string of dolphins gets too much sunlight (specifically direct summer sunlight), it is likely to sunburn. You may need to experiment to find the best location, and that location may vary at different times of year.
Although the plant needs more consistent moisture in its soil than most succulents, it does not need any additional humidity.
Some string of dolphins plants go dormant in the winter, but many indoor plants don’t get cold enough to go dormant, so they grow slowly year round. You can try to force a dormancy by overwintering the plant in a location where the temperature is around fifty degrees Fahrenheit, but there is no real need to.
A string of dolphins can be grown in certain locations outdoors, but they are more commonly grown indoors. Because of their trailing habit, you can grow them in a pot (hanging or otherwise), or even trailing over a rock wall. However, string of dolphins are not cold-tolerant. So, if you live anywhere cooler than USDA Zone 9b, you’ll need to grow it in a pot and move it indoors for the winter.
Note: Using a pot is always a good choice because you can change the plant’s location based on the season.
Keep in mind that a string of dolphins prefers gradual transitions. When you move it outdoors in the spring, move it outside for only a couple of hours per day at first, and gradually build up to all day, before leaving it outdoors at night. Moving it too quickly can cause wilting, leaf drop, etc.
This succulent is also a bit picky about how much sunlight it gets.
You should place it in an area that gets lots of bright indirect light. That spot should also protect the plant from the afternoon sun because direct sun exposure can result in the plant getting sunburned.
Dappled sun is great, so under a loose-leafed tree or in a planter hanging in the shade of a covered porch are good options.
Don’t adopt dolphins if you have other pets or small children, as they are poisonous. Like their genetic parent string of pearls, they may cause vomiting, diarrhea, and skin rashes in children and worse symptoms in pets.
It is a compact plant that works well in a hanging planter, so if you are determined to get one, you could hang it up out of reach. However, you would need to be extremely diligent about removing any leaves that might fall from it.
Our view is that it isn’t worth the risk when there are so many other adorable pet-safe succulents.
Note: My favorite pet-safe succulent with a trailing stem structure is another visual pun in plant form: string of hearts. It produces long delicate stems of beautiful sage-green, silver, and pink leaves, and is safe for all of your two-legged and four-legged housemates.
Container and Soil
String of dolphins holds a lot of water, but, like its namesake animal, it isn’t suited for dry environments. It doesn’t like to dry out for long, but it is also susceptible to root rot. That means that even though it benefits from slightly more frequent watering than most succulents, it needs a loose, well-draining soil and good drainage for good root health.
A hanging planter is the obvious choice for this beautiful plant, but it can also grow in a regular pot.
Use a pot with a good sized drainage hole. If your pot doesn’t have a drainage hole (for example if it’s an indoor hanging planter), you can use the ‘pot in a pot’ method. Regardless, it is essential not to drown your dolphins.
Commercially available cactus/succulent-specific potting mixes will work, but the ideal is to mix your own potting blend for succulents. Not only is it much better for growing succulents than anything you’ll find at a big-box store, it also saves you money, and you can blend different ratios for different purposes and plant species.
You don’t have to be strict about the ratios, but a good basic recipe for growing string of dolphins is:
- Two parts organic matter, either
- A potting mix designed for cacti and succulents, or
- A mixture of half regular potting mix and half coconut coir
- One part coarse sand, and
- One part gritty amendment (such as perlite or pumice).
Note: The sand and gritty amendment will ensure that your string of dolphins’ roots don’t become water-logged.
String of dolphins may not want to swim in water like their namesakes, but they do like a watering schedule that is a little more frequent than a typical succulent.
They prefer not to dry out completely, which often means weekly watering in the summer and less frequently in the winter.
Note: Wait until the surface (or in a big pot maybe an inch or so of potting mix) is dry, but don’t wait for the pot to dry out entirely like you would with a cactus. If your dolphins deflate and lose their vitality, that typically means they need a drink.
Regardless of how frequently you water them, we recommend using the “soak and dry” or “dunk and soak” methods, which are explained in detail in our complete guide to watering succulents.
When you water, be careful not to get any more water on the leaves than necessary as they can rot. This can be easy with a sparse plant, but a healthy plant with a full crown dense with leaves makes it more difficult. In those cases, stick with the “dunk and soak” method.
Over the winter, continue to water the plant as needed, when the top of the soil dries out. Not before, and not long after that. Just keep in mind that whether or not it goes dormant, it will not need as frequent watering in the winter.
Our succulent watering guide includes a tracking card for watering, fertilizing, and other succulent care. Keeping these kinds of notes is a great practice, especially for the first year while you are getting to know your string of dolphins.
Fertilizer and Maintenance
Dolphins mostly feed themselves, but like Skipper, your plant will appreciate a treat now and then. You don’t need to bother in the first year after repotting a string of dolphins when its soil is freshest. In subsequent years, fertilize a few times per year.
Don’t fertilize in the winter months, when its growth slows, whether or not it is in a true dormancy.
When you do fertilize, we recommend a liquid cactus fertilizer, ideally organic. If you are using a chemical liquid fertilizer, make sure to dilute it to a quarter-strength, or at most half-strength, based on the package instructions.
It’s important to avoid over-fertilizing, because whatever excess nutrients the plants can’t absorb can burn the roots.
The best choice is to use an organic fertilizer formulated specifically for cacti or succulents, and follow the package instructions.
Info: Avoid any fertilizer (chemical or organic) that has an NPK ratio where the nitrogen (N) is higher than the phosphorus (P) or potassium (K). An even balance is preferable for succulents. If this language is unfamiliar to you, or you want more tips, check out our complete guide to fertilizing succulents.
Your string of dolphins won’t need pruning, but it won’t hurt the plant at all and can help you give the plant a shape you like (for example if a few stems are much longer than the others, you can trim them to match). If you do prune it, use a sharp, sterile knife or pruning shears. You can propagate the cuttings.
Repot your string of dolphins roughly every few years. It’s also a good idea to repot it when you first bring it home, so you can make sure the roots are healthy and the pot contains appropriate potting mix and adequate drainage. Our guide to choosing a succulent pot is full of tips for finding an appropriate pot.
Stem propagation of string of dolphins could hardly be easier. You can propagate any piece that falls off (or you cut off) your plant. You may notice that your string of dolphins is already growing fine, hair-like roots directly from the stem. These mean the propagated stems can grow roots in the soil quite quickly.
String of dolphins plants look best and are healthiest when they are full and bushy, so you don’t really want to propagate a single strand. Ideally you will have a bunch of pieces.
- Simply lay the pieces on the surface of the potting mix.
- Fill the pot with cuttings as much as possible.
- Keep it moist (ideally without getting the stems or leaves themselves wet, and the stems will likely take root.)
- You can leave the entire stem lying in contact with the surface of the soil or leave one end draping over the edge of the pot, it makes little difference.
If you have a piece with no roots yet, you can tuck the end of the cutting down into the soil to encourage rooting.
You may also want to use stem cuttings to increase the bulk of an existing plant, rather than using propagation to create a new plant. If you’re willing to sacrifice a little length, you can simply add your trimmed ends to the pot with the existing plant to make it grow bushier.
If you’re new to this process, check out our guide for more tips on propagating your succulents.
Common String of Dolphins Problems
Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to figure out your string of dolphin’s care needs. It likes a lot of indirect sun exposure, or else it can get leggy, but it is also susceptible to sunburn, especially from direct afternoon light on an outdoor plant. It likes to be watered more frequently than many succulents, but it retains a lot of water and is susceptible to root rot.
One common sign a string of dolphins is in the wrong environment is leaf shrinkage. If your dolphins look a bit dehydrated, your plant may be getting too much heat or inadequate water or light.
All that said, it is not a difficult plant to care for, once you find the right spot for it and develop a routine.
It is also less likely to have serious problems with insects like aphids and mealybugs, because the plant structure is looser, instead of packed tight with lots of hidden crevices for them to hide in. When you catch an infestation early, it is much easier to treat.
Make a Splash with your Succulents
Plants like jade, spider plant, and philodendron are great, but honestly not very exciting. Everyone has seen enough of them that they tend to blend into the background, providing a vague green quality to your room without actually attracting attention or sparking conversation. String of dolphins is a great antidote to a boring shelf of houseplants for any pet- and toddler-free home.