Monday, January 7, 2008

Dilettante (Syngonium podophyllum)

Yet another plant I brought home once, only to do terribly wrong and then throw out. This one, though, has a happier ending than most, since I eventually made up for the failure by growing a few that, knock wood, are doing okay.

My current collection of Syngonium podophyllum.

I don't see a lot to be gained by rehashing the whole story in tedious detail, especially since I've told it elsewhere. (The link also includes, as a bonus, the list of song titles on my country album, which are down towards the bottom of the thread: I think my favorite of those is "(Why Can't You) Love Me Like My Pothos Loves Me." I'll have to work on coming up with some new material.1)

So, one important feature of the plant: don't repot it in the middle of winter, too deep, in heavy, wet soil, while traumatizing the roots, and then overwater it, okay?

Syngonium podophyllum is native to Central America north into Mexico, which is more or less also Monstera deliciosa's stomping grounds. They've hit on similar solutions to the problems of the environment: both are climbing vines that have heart- or arrowhead-shaped2 entire leaves when young and develop a more complex shape as the plant gets older. In the case of Monstera, the older leaves remain basically heart-shaped but become increasingly perforated as the plant matures; with Syngonium, the plant's more mature leaves are split into multiple thin ovals (pedate, for those of you following along in your dictionaries). This page has good (black and white) pictures of mature leaves; a color picture showing both mature and juvenile leaves at once can be found here.

Syngonium podophyllum 'Emerald Gem'

Generally, only the juvenile form of the plant is grown indoors; a lot of people apparently aren't too keen on the lobed, climbing version. I'm not either, though I've never seen a climber that was variegated or otherwise interestingly colored, and I'm curious about how that would turn out. (Maybe a climbing, lobed 'Neon' would be awesome.)2.5 A plant that is beginning to vine can be disciplined by cutting the particular stem in question back to the ground, if you don't want vining.

Syngonium in the industry is mostly produced from tissue culture, these days: everybody loves tissue culture because 1) there's a high cost of entry, which limits the number of people doing it to a very few, very large players; 2) it's possible to produce a large number of plants from a very small amount of starting material; 3) unlike taking cuttings, it works quickly and avoids transmission of diseases and pests from one generation to the next; 4) plants produced from tissue culture tend to spend more time in the more desirable clumping, juvenile-leaf form. Syngonium happens to be especially suitable for tissue culture because plants reach mature size very quickly this way, so one can, at least in theory, pump plants out the door as fast as the consumers can kill them.

Surprisingly, I was unable to find any evidence that Syngonium has been involved in genetic engineering, which surprised me, considering how many new cultivars have appeared on the market lately.3 (A couple pages with pictures are available here and here, but there are plenty others that aren't on those pages.) Syngonium, like English ivy (Hedera helix), has a tendency to sport frequently, or throw out a vine that has a different shape, color, or pattern to it, and these new forms can be maintained through vegetative propagation, or (apparently) by tissue culture as well. The 'Allusion' series of cultivars ('Berry Allusion,' 'Bob Allusion,' 'Pink Allusion') are said to have started from vine sports this way, as well as the popular cultivar 'White Butterfly:'

Syngonium podophyllum 'White Butterfly'

So Syngonium is kind of its own experimenter, which I guess is a neighborly way for a plant to be. There is, of course, a darker side, this being that it likes to try on new habitats as much as it likes to try on new colors and shapes.

Yes, it's yet another invasive. (Sigh.) Like Florida doesn't have enough problems.

The most talked about problems with Syngonium seem to be in Florida, where the plant has escaped cultivation in the Gainesville, St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Miami, and Tampa areas. Plus probably some others that didn't make the list. (See the map at the University of South Florida site.) However, the plant has also spread itself around in American Samoa, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Galapagos Islands, and in the Christmas Island area near Australia. Removal is a big hassle, wherever it's spread, because the plant can tolerate low light and reproduce from a single node. So, some of the removal is going to have to take place in forest cover, mostly by pulling the vines off of trees, and when you do, you can't let any of the plant fall to the ground and slip under some leaf litter, or else you'll be back again in six months to do the exact same thing. Realistically, Syngonium species are probably going to remain anywhere they've become established, unless it's a very, very small, very, very isolated spot. I have yet to see any reports that Syngoniums have caused serious environmental damage anywhere, but that doesn't mean they're innocent, and even if it hasn't yet, that's not very consoling, because they almost certainly will at some point. You can't bring a fast-growing, shade-tolerant plant to an established ecosystem and not make some ripples.

This plant occasionally still goes by the name Nephthytis in the trade, which is aggravating to me personally: not only is it not the right name, it's not easy to say. But it does happen. We've had plants shipped to us that were identified on the invoices as Nephthytis, even though there is an actual Nephthytis genus which isn't related to or similar to Syngonium. I know these things happen, but it's been at least 30 years: surely people could make the switchover, given 30 years to adjust.

Syngonium podophyllum 'Orientals Shanghai' (?)

So what we have is a plant that changes leaf shape over the course of its life, changes color and variegation pattern all the time, changes its habitat often enough to be annoying, and changes its name occasionally. One almost wants to yell at it to focus, already.

Fortunately, its unwillingness to buckle down and stick to a particular kind of life makes the transition to indoors pretty easy. It's adaptable to almost any kind of light, from low-moderate up to full sun (bright indirect to filtered sun would be the ideal, but really, you can do almost anything – the only thing to watch for is, variegated leaves will lose variegation if the light is too low, and plants will become spindly and weak-looking, with tiny pale leaves, if there's not enough light. I think some of my own plants, in fact, need more light than they're getting. Syngonium is also fairly prone to sunburn, if light intensity is increased too much, too rapidly.), and it's very easy to propagate from cuttings, or even just nodes with a single leaf attached.4 Grooming is minimal. Fertilization is kind of a weird case: my growers' guide says that Syngonium will grow more or less the same regardless of how much you feed them (though he hedges his bets by saying that plants grown in brighter light should be getting more food). Pests aren't normally a huge problem, either, though there are several bacterial diseases that can cause leaf spots (including a strain of Xanthomonas that is specific to Syngonium) – this is more common when foliage is left wet – and there are a number of fungal diseases as well that are pretty much not worth getting detailed about if you're just growing plants at home as a hobby.5

Actual insect pests are relatively uncommon, and limited to the usual suspects: spider mites and mealybugs. I've never had any problems with either, though, nor do I recall having any insect problems on the plants at work. The latest batch of Syngonium we've gotten had a few brown spots on the leaves, probably from one of the aforementioned bacterial diseases, but otherwise they tend to be pretty healthy.

Humidity seems to be flexible, though a lot of plants don't require humidity but do better with some anyway: Syngonium is such a plant. About the only real trick with these is watering, and watering isn't terribly tricky compared to some plants. In fact, if you want to grow this in nothing but water, it's one of the better candidates: it makes the transition very readily and can sustain itself for quite a while. It goes pretty much the way you'd think: shake the dirt off the roots, stick it in water, replace the water periodically. It's also, naturally, a good candidate for hydroculture (which is different from growing in water), but Water Roots is really more the person to ask about that.

Advice about watering plants in soil varies, but everybody is pretty clear that you don't want to leave the plant soaking wet all the time, and you don't want it to dry out completely. I water mine mostly by weight, which is hard to describe, but it winds up something like, when the soil is dry to between 1/4 and 1/2 of the way down.

Syngonium podophyllum, NOID (probably something in the 'Allusion' group, but who knows: These were Lowe's rescue plants when I got them, and the tags said the variety was 'Maria,' but you know how reliable tags are.)

In very dire situations of over- or underwatering, Syngonium will wilt. If you see wilting happening, you need to be very, very certain that you know which direction the problem lies before trying to fix it. The solution for underwatering should be pretty obvious; there's not as much you can do about overwatering, but bottom heat may be helpful: these plants are supposed to be more tolerant of heat than most, so as long as you don't get carried away, you might be able to evaporate some of the excess by setting the plant on a DVD player or other warm piece of electronics. I wouldn't leave it there indefinitely or anything, though.

When they're reasonably well-established, Syngonium tend to be pretty quick-growing, and they are more year-round growers than a lot of plants, too, so if you do something wrong, they'll let you know pretty much right away. So long as you don't plant them outside in a tropical climate or try to suffocate them, everything should be fine.

EDITED 20Dec08: There's an unfinished business post that shows what happens to variegated plants that begin to vine (though not what happens when the leaves develop lobes) here.

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Photo credits: all me.


1 No, I don't really have an album. And I don't know how those songs would go. But I'd like to hear them, if they ever get written. Also, poetic license with the title I quote: my pothos actually seem to like the husband considerably more than they do me.
2 In the jargon: cordate and sagittate, respectively.
2.5 Alas, I have since been directed to this paper, which says that the specific variety 'Maya Red' loses its pink color in mature leaves. I think we can probably safely infer that this is a general characteristic for Syngonium, which is disappointing to me but not wholly unexpected. It does explain why I never see any plants with mature, variegated leaves for sale: I'd expect those to sell well if they existed. Perhaps this is something for some well-funded aroid grower with tons of experience (coughcoughcoughplantdaddycoughcough) to get cracking on. (Well? I'm waiting. . . .)
3 Not that I'd mind. I have no particular problem with genetic engineering in some places: I think it's fine in some situations, and I don’t see it as being especially different from the natural genetic reshuffling that happens when a flower gets pollinated and forms a seed. I do object to inserting genes that code for natural pesticides (like BT toxin, a protein from a bacterium that can kill insects), because that turns a natural beneficial item into a commodity and will eventually drive the evolution of pests which are resistant to the toxin, effectively making the bacterium useless for any further pest control. I don't think Monsanto or ADM or whoever have earned the right to take a global public good and ruin it for everybody forever. (Call me a radical.) I also don't approve of producing plants that require seeds to be treated with a chemical activator in order to sprout, or in order to produce commercially viable plants. Most of what you could want to know about that can be found in Michael Pollan's book The Botany of Desire, in the chapter on potatoes, which is definitely worth the $10.17 it'd cost you at Amazon, and really really really worth a trip to your local public library, even if you have to fill out an interlibrary loan request. Seriously. Run, don't walk. You'll thank me later. [beat] Why are you still here? Go! Go! I give you leave to go!
4 I actually managed to get a node with no leaf on it to root in water, in the aftermath of the disastrous experience I mentioned at the top of the post. I didn't hang on to it because the new growth was disproportionately tiny, it didn't make the transition to soil well, and by the time it got going I was so sick of Syngoniums that I never wanted to see another one. I got over it, but this means that I didn't salvage anything from the doomed plant, either. Fortunately, I think the doomed plant and the one labeled above as 'Emerald Gem' were both cuttings of the same original plant, which happens to be one that's still for sale at work, so even if there's no real continuity, there's a kind of abstract sense in which my current plant redeems the one I killed. Or at least that's what I'm telling myself. (La la la la la -- I can't hear you. . . .)
5 Though it's maybe worth noting that the recommended treatment for one of them, Ceratocystis, is to take cuttings and then dip them in 120ºF (49ºC) water for thirty minutes. (!) Syngonium has a reputation for being very tolerant of high temperatures, but even so, I was kind of shocked to read this.


8 comments:

sheila said...

I really like syngoniums. In fact, reading this is making me want to buy a few more. They do great in my house, probably because I don't water very often. I have two, neither came labeled, but I believe they are 'Pink Splash' and "Trileaf Wonder'. Trileaf is way cool - it makes the three-lobed leaves as a juvenile, and has a somewhat different shape, more viney but less lanky, if that is possible to imagine. I did have one succumb to some sort of brown spot, probably one of the bacterial diseases you mentioned. I bought it from Lowe's after weeks and months of rain and stuck it in low light. It didn't actually die, but it kept spotting, and I finally got sick of looking at it and threw it out.

I had a coworker with a big planter of syngonium that lived for years with a huge mealy infestation that would have killed just about any other plant. The syngonium barely even cared!

lemonthyme said...

thank you for your articles!!

Anonymous said...

A while since you posted this but invaluable information to me, I live in Perth western Australia, the weather is all over the place, summer at the moment and after a week of 39 degrees celcius my syngoniums are fine, I have a 'maria' but it is a very dark green purple, I got it recently so I'm yet to re-pot it, so I'm going to follow everything you've written, thank you!

val said...

I live in south florida, and I just pulled a very mature vine out of my yard. It even had a flower. Anyway, I'd like to save a bit of it and see what the juvenile leaves look like. Turn it into a houseplant. What's the best way? Thanks!

mr_subjunctive said...

val:

You ought to be able to root cuttings in water, as long as they contain some of the main stem and a node (the slightly-swelled part of the stem where a leaf attaches). I'd recommend 1) dividing the stem into pieces two nodes long, then 2) removing the lower leaf, so there are two nodes but only the top one has a leaf attached. Root in water, then move to a container when you see new root growth.

Since you're in a tropical area, you might also be able to get away with just sticking the cuttings directly into soil, without going through the water-rooting step. As long as the soil stays moist and the temperatures are warm, the cuttings should root.

The new growth may be slow, but once it begins, it should be the juvenile form of the leaves.

Maty said...

I bought one from a very well named superstore about 3 years ago. I transplanted it about two weeks after I got it into a bigger pot. I didn't notice a difference in growth the first year and I thought well maybe the pot was still to small. So I transplanted it again and still no knew growth at all. It never wilted, never dried up nothing. Actually except the only thing it does is it moves to the light. Today I transplanted it again into an even bigger pot and checked the roots to see how they where doing and I am not kidding you they have not changed one bit either. They never grew they look over watered witch I actually stopped watering them for the last 8 months to see if anything would happen. Ofcourse nothing did. I don't know what is going on. I like the plant and would have like to see new growth 3 years ago. I don't know what I am doing wrong. It's just really really stunted, it's like it's frozen in time. Anyone else has had the same problem? It is a Nephthytis "Maria" Syngonium podophyllum.

mr_subjunctive said...

Maty:

The first thing I would tell you is to stop moving it into ever-larger pots. Find a pot that's big enough to fit the roots, without a lot of room left over, and use that. More soil doesn't give the plant more room to grow, it just suffocates its roots.

Beyond that, your account doesn't make any more sense to me than it does to you. Obviously a plant that hasn't grown or died for three years, including an 8-month stretch when it received no water at all, is exceptional, bordering on supernatural.[1]

(Or, possibly, it's artificial, but I think you would have mentioned it if that were the case.)

A plant that's not getting enough light might grow very slowly, but it'd still do something, and with Syngoniums it's usually more that they go ahead and grow regardless, they just produce weak, pale new growth and stretch hard toward whatever light source is available.

Cool temperatures might also slow down growth a lot, but I'm assuming you've got the plant indoors.

If you're using pots that don't have drainage holes, so that any water you add stays in the pot, that could maybe explain why it didn't need to be watered for eight months. They do need to be able to dry out a bit between waterings.

If all else fails, I suppose you could try taking a cutting and rooting it in water. Syngoniums will grow in water more or less indefinitely, as long as you're changing the water regularly and adding a little bit of fertilizer.

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[1] (A joke: I do not actually believe that anything supernatural is happening with your plant.)

Black Thumb said...

Syngonium must be almost indestructible because even I can easily keep it alive! Propagates easily as described. Last time I propagated it, I tried it without any leaves on the cuttings! I cut 1-2" pieces of ugly old leafless woody vines that I was about to throw away. I partially covered all the sections in moist Perlite in a small shallow saucer. I placed in an almost-closed clear plastic bag to retain humidity, kept the whole thing warm and exposed to indirect light. Each little section of stem soon had tiny new leaves growing on it and grew into a healthy new plant! I could see how this plant could get out of control if left outdoors in the right climate.