Skeleton Flower Plant Profile

Woodland Perennial With Glass-Like Flowers When It Rains

Skeleton flower petals become transparent after it rains

ashitaka-f / Flickr / Courtesy of photographer

With only two large, umbrella-like leaves, skeleton flower has some similarity to mayapple. This rare woodland perennial however has a spectacular effect. In June or July, skeleton flower produces tiny white flowers. These don’t look that special at first but wait until it rains—then the flowers turn colorless and clear like glass. This happens because the petals of the skeleton flower are so thin that they become transparent. With the intricate lines, it looks like a human skeleton.

After the bloom, as the flowers dry up, they become a faded white. In early autumn, the reddish seed stalks develop clusters of bright blue berries, also quite an eye-catcher.

Starting with the folded-up leaves slowly unrolling in the spring, skeleton flower offers plant drama all season long.

Botanical Name Diphylleia grayi
Common Name Skeleton flower, Umbrella plant, Asian umbrella leaf
Plant Type Perennial
Mature Size 16 inches height, two to three feet spread
Sun Exposure Part shade to full shade
Soil Type Sandy and loamy soils
Soil pH 4.5 to 7.0 
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 4 to 9
Native Area China, Japan
Diphylleia grayi flowers
Diphylleia grayi flowers. Alpsdake / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

How to Grow Skeleton Flower

Skeleton flower is a woodland native to the colder mountainous regions of China and Japan. To determine whether skeleton flower is suitable for your yard, imagine a forest setting in a cool area where the skeleton flower grows as an understory plant in a shady location, under the canopy of deciduous trees, protected from strong winds and growing in consistently moist, undisturbed soil that is rich in organic material from fallen tree leaves.

Plant it in early spring or early fall. Skeleton flower has both male and female flowers so you don’t need two plants for pollination. However, skeleton flower is best planted in groupings and not as an individual specimen. The clumps of large, green foliage are an attractive groundcover.

If planted in the right location, skeleton flower is low maintenance. Throughout the growing season, remove the dead foliage so that the new leaves can unfold without hindrance.

Light

Skeleton flower is sensitive to sunlight. It requires a shady location, preferably woodland, where it is fully protected from the hot midday and afternoon sun.

Soil

The soil should be deep, rich in humus and consistently moist yet well drained. To mimic the plant's native habitat, where skeleton flower gets a constant supply of decaying organic matter, mulch the plant with an ample amount of compost or leaf mold every year.

Water

Skeleton flower requires consistent moisture so select a location with naturally moist soil. During a dry spell, water it slowly and deeply by drip irrigation.

Temperature and Humidity

Skeleton flower needs a cool, temperate climate, and it likes humid air. It won’t do well in hot, dry summer weather.

The plant dies back during the winter. Covering it with a layer of organic mulch helps to protect it from subzero winter temperatures.

Fertilizer

If there is not enough natural organic matter from fallen leaves, you can add a complete fertilizer in the early spring.

Diphylleia grayi fruits in early fall
Diphylleia grayi fruits in early fall. Alpsdake / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Propagating

Diphylleia grows stems from its thick underground rhizomes. To propagate, divide the rhizomes, or take cuttings and replant them.

While you might find skeleton flower seeds for sale, growing it from seed is tricky. Germination is very slow, requires a special cool weather cycle, and can take up to a year or longer.

Being Grown in Containers

If your local climate is below zone 4, you can still grow skeleton flower in containers. Bring the containers indoors for the winter. During its dormant period, the plant needs less water. With spring arriving, slowly increase the watering and acclimate the plants over several days, similar to hardening off seedlings, before leaving the containers outside permanently for the summer.

Common Pests/Diseases

Skeleton flower is not commonly affected by any pests or diseases.

Similar Species

There are two other Diphylleia species but only Diphylleia grayi has the stunning skeleton effect. This does not mean that the two other Diphylleia species don’t make attractive groundcovers in shady woodland locations. American umbrella leaf (Diphylleia cymosa) is a plant native to the southeastern United States and the southern Appalachian mountains. The outstanding feature of the umbrella leaf native to China and Japan (Diphylleia sinensis) is the shiny bronze color of the emerging foliage in the spring.