"Omegabook," at davesgarden.com, wants you to know that this plant is "Boring! All it does is produce leaves." Now, the leaves in question are three feet long (0.9 m) and approximately as wide, dark green and cut in a lacy pattern, on a plant which is capable of getting six to eight feet (1.8 to 2.4 m) in diameter, but if there are no flowers, then I guess it just doesn't measure up to Mr/s. Omegabook's exacting standards. Some people. [eye roll]
And it isn't even true. Philodendron bipinnatifidum flowers. The flowers, like for most members of the Araceae,1 aren't especially pretty or colorful, but they're quite spectacular in their own way, which we'll get to.
Because this plant has the potential to get so big, it's not used indoors as much as many other Philodendrons, particularly not in homes. It's one thing to have a plant that's eight feet across in the enormous, glass-walled lobby of your business, and something else entirely to have the same plant in your 10' x 12' (3.0 x 3.7 m) bedroom with the one little north-facing window. The setting in which one is most likely to run across P. bipinnatifidum2 is outdoors, in tropical areas. It is allegedly hardy to USDA Zone 9,3 which means most of Central and South Florida, the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Southwestern Arizona, and the southwesternmost two-thirds of California, give or take. (USDA Zone map is here. See how Mexico is various shades of orange? That's Zone 9 and higher.)
P. bipinnatifidum is originally from South America, specifically Southern Brazil south to Paraguay. Argentina is mentioned in some reference sources, and Wikipedia adds Bolivia as well. Basically the central part of the continent, is the impression I'm getting.
Plants in good conditions will not only get very wide; they will also get long. They form a trunk over time, which starts out erect but eventually will bend sideways under its own weight. Plants are also semi-epiphytic if they happen to grow near a tree: they'll latch onto the tree with aerial roots and can grow 60 feet or more that way, dropping more aerial roots all the way down to the ground as they go. (There are pictures of this phenomenon here.) This will continue until the plant dies or until the weight of the plant pulls the tree over (which does happen).
In any case, this plant has the capacity for being a very robust, energetic specimen, given good conditions in which to grow, but that's not what's special about the plant. What's special about the plant is the flowers.
Because, you see, they literally get hot.
First the plant has to be old enough to flower. Most sources put this at about 15 years old, though this varies. As with other aroid inflorescences, the inflorescence as a whole involves a spadix, a small stiff projection which contains the actual flowers, and the spathe, a modified leaf which surrounds the spadix. (I could not find a public domain photo of a P. bipinnatifidum inflorescence, but there's a picture of one here.)
The spadix contains a few thousand small flowers, both male and female: male ones at the tip, female ones at the base. Philodendron bipinnatifidum also produces a zone of sterile male flowers in between the two. Both the fertile male flowers and (especially) the infertile male flowers heat up, though this only occurs over a two- or three-day period, and only produces enough heat to maintain a more or less constant temperature, so any given flower you touch may or may not feel warmer than the air around it, depending on your timing. The sources I found all gave different numbers for exactly how hot they can get, but one source said that they can maintain a constant temperature of 38C/100F when the ambient temp is 4C/39F, and a couple others said similar things but phrased in different ways, so this appears to be true. Depending on the source reporting it, they may hit anywhere from 86-114F (30-46C).
This would all be interesting enough on its own, but it turns out that this is done by burning fat instead of carbohydrates. This is normal for us mammals,4 but for a plant, it's pretty radical, since they usually store energy from the sun as carbohydrate and then burn the carbohydrate when they need the energy back. Burning fat for energy is very weird behavior, for a plant, and it's a startlingly rapid rate even by animal standards: the spadix of one of the Philodendrons that do this5 goes through roughly the same number of calories during this two- or three-day period that a hummingbird would -- and hummingbirds have the fastest metabolic rate of any animal.6 Spadices also maintain a more or less constant temperature, metabolizing faster when the air is cooler and slowing down when it's warm. Again, this is not particularly impressive for us, who maintain more or less a constant temperature all the time, but it's bizarre, animal-like behavior for a plant.
Such an over-the-top trait must serve some kind of purpose, of course, and the purpose is pollination. Philodendron bipinnatifidum is pollinated by beetles called Erioscelis emarginata.7 One of several benefits of having a warm spadix is that volatile odor compounds are more effectively dispersed by a warm object than a cool one (think potpourri, or Glade Plug-Ins, or something), so warming the spadix is a better way for the plant to advertise its presence to the beetles.8
The insects themselves are, like most insects, cold-blooded, and as such are more active at warmer temperatures. The plant has an interest in the beetles being active in two different ways: one, the more the beetles move around, the more pollen they're going to pick up or set down, so the more complete the pollination will be, and two, the beetles also treat the occasion as more or less a big hookup opportunity, and mate with one another while in the inflorescence. This is also (less directly) in the plant's interest, because it needs to have beetles around next year in case it flowers again, and if there are no mating beetles this year, there will be no replacement beetles next year.
Dr. Marc Gibernau has also theorized that the beetles might be able to detect the heat given off by the spadix at a distance, and be able to approach it by "seeing" it in infrared somehow. The scare quotes are because Gibernau believes that the beetle probably doesn't see this with its actual eyes, but instead detects the heat with its antennae, or some other sensor on its body. I personally sort of prefer to think they do see it, because there's something kind of poetic to me about the plant shining a beacon through the forest that only the beetles can see, but whatever. Maybe it's more like a thumping bass only they can hear. Doesn't matter. But whatever the mode of detection, the point is not so much how the insect's brain interprets the signal as that there's such a strong signal in the first place. There are some fairly dramatic pictures of Philodendron spadices photographed at infrared wavelengths here and here; the first is of Philodendron bipinnatifidum and the second is of P. solimoesense.
One paper suggested that the beetles which pollinate Philodendron solimoesense might literally be unable to fly away from the flower the next day were it not heated: below a certain temperature they're content to just lay around watching TV or whatever. Another, referencing a third paper, said that most of a beetle's requirement for food would be spent on warming itself,9 and that the plant, by providing heat for the beetle, is actually reducing the beetles' food requirement to a mere 2.5% of what it would otherwise be. And then it feeds them, too!10 So keeping them warm and fed so they are able to fly to the next flower is a third reason why the Philodendrons need heated flowers.
I'm tempted to say that the beetles are taking advantage of the plants. If they would only stand on their own six feet and gather their own food, and warm themselves up, and invest in a better set of antennae that was more sensitive to the scent of a Philodendron flower, and just not bother the Philodendron so damn much, the Philodendron would be spared an awful lot of effort. But this is the arrangement they've worked out, and I suppose it works well enough for all involved, because nobody's gone extinct yet.
So, overall: the inflorescence initially opens in the early evening, the beetles enter, trash the place, and have an orgy during the night. They sleep it off the next morning, and then in the mid-afternoon of the second day, the spathe starts to contract around the spadix, reducing the available space and more or less kicking them out. It also deposits a sticky resin and pollen on them as they exit. Upon reaching the exit, the beetles look (or smell) for another party starting up, and go there, pollinating the new flower as they arrive and repeating the whole process.11
Virtually none of this is likely to happen if you grow the plant indoors, and it does you no good anyway unless you happen to have two plants blooming at the same time and access to a next-day beetle delivery service, but it's interesting to know, right?
My personal experience with P. bipinnatifidum is somewhat limited; we do have one in the house, but it belonged, originally, to the husband, and I've been the one taking care of it only since we moved. It hasn't always been that thrilled with me, either.
LIGHT: Outdoors, they'll apparently grow happily wherever, except for the extremes of intense, all-day-long sun or very deep shade. Indoors, you should aim for at least bright indirect light, and if some sun is available, take it. The one we have here has been, variously, indoors in a large south window, outside in a spot that got morning but not afternoon sun, indoors with mostly just artificial light, and currently it's getting by in a spot in the middle of the plant room that gets actual sunlight only on sunny days, and then only for about two hours. This is not a plant for a dark corner, but that's fine, since you couldn't fit it in a corner anyway.
WATER: This is the part I've had the most problem with. The husband used to water his with a set amount of water on an irregular but infrequent basis, so the soil was never entirely saturated, but it was also usually sitting in whatever water did manage to drain all the way through. This is not how you're supposed to do it, but that's how he did it, and the plant was accustomed to a variable but intermediate level of moisture all the time. I, when I took over care of the plant, started watering the way I'm accustomed to watering, with full soil saturation followed by discarding the drainage water and a long dry spell before the next watering, so the moisture level in the soil swung dramatically from one extreme to the other. The plant didn't like this, and threw leaves, so I apologized profusely and have tried to imitate the way the husband used to do it even though it goes against every plant-watering instinct I have, and things appear to be getting better.
Both extremes are bad. Don't use a heavy soil that stays wet for a long time, put it in a pot without drainage, or put your plant in an extra-big pot so it can have room to grow (it won't: it'll just get too wet, rot, and die), but try to keep the soil from completely drying out, too. Luckily, the plant will likely survive anything between these two extremes, so you will have plenty of time to work something out.
TEMPERATURE: P. bipinnatifidum is surprisingly temperature-tolerant, and can come back from brief exposures to temperatures in the low to mid-20s F (-3 to -7 C), though the parts of the plant which are above ground will die back if this happens, and then you have to wait for the roots to resprout. Still, this is pretty hardy for such a tropical-looking plant. I was unable to find any solid information about how low the temperature can go before above-ground parts of the plant begin to die, but I'm fairly certain, from living in an area where they were grown outside year-round, that they'll survive at least into the lower 40s F (4 to 6 C) just fine. My suspicion is that leaf damage probably begins at the freezing point (32F/0C). In any case, if you feel comfortable walking around in your house, the temperature is probably fine as far as the plant's concerned.
HUMIDITY: As with most tropicalish plants, people usually advise high humidity for best results. Our plant here has yet to complain about humidity levels as far as I'm aware, though portions of leaves which were directly above the shop lights back in the apartment did die, which might have been partly a humidity thing. High light, heat, and humidity in combination can encourage much more rapid growth, if rapid growth is something you want, but more moderate levels of all three are perfectly satisfactory for keeping the plant alive.
PESTS: I've seen spider mites on P. bipinnatifidum before, though not very often and never particularly severe. Other pests, like mealybugs or scale, may be possible, but this is not a plant that tends to attract serious bug problems. Your experience may vary.
GROOMING: Nothing in particular you need to do but take off the occasional dead leaf. Many Philodendrons, bipinnatifidum included, grow temporary sheaths to protect new leaves from damage while they're still developing. These sheaths will dry up and turn brown when they have served their purpose, and it doesn't hurt anything to leave them on, but if you're desperate to groom something, you can remove them.
Also in this category (which I use as the catch-all for any plant quirks not covered by one of the other categories) is the plant's often inconvenient size.
PROPAGATION: For all practical purposes, propagation isn't something you're going to be doing indoors. As mentioned previously, plants that are cut back, or that die back in a freeze, can resprout from their roots, and I've seen plants that weren't cut back grow small offsets around the plant's base (the husband's plant is doing this now, though it's only just begun so it's hard to see: picture is below), but I'm not sure that propagation by root cutting is normally possible, and when we tried to pot up offsets from some of the plants at work, some ended up doing better than others. So propagation from offsets is not entirely foolproof.
In an emergency situation, like say for example if your plant's roots are rotting out because you've overwatered, you can try salvaging the plant via stem cuttings: supposedly all it takes is a couple nodes, and frequently the plant already has aerial roots present. I have not done this personally, so I advise it only 1) as an act of desperation, when you have nothing to lose by trying, or 2) when you have favorable growing conditions (a greenhouse, or a warm tropical climate). If anybody's ever done this successfully, I'd love to hear about it.
Some websites also offer P. bipinnatifidum seeds, like for example seedman.com, which as of this writing sells packages of ten seeds for $1.95; if you're really enthused you can get 100 seeds for $9.95 from nextharvest.com.12 Seed-grown plants are supposed to take a long time to mature, though if you have limited indoor space, that's not necessarily a bad thing: most people aren't going to want to buy a packet of seeds in March and have a hundred four-foot-diameter plants by October.
FEEDING: I haven't seen anything suggesting that this plant needs anything terribly out of the ordinary for fertilizer, though the Griffith growers' guide of which I am so fond says that Philodendrons are generally somewhat heavy feeders, relative to other common foliage plants, so you may find it helpful to feed slightly more than you do for your other plants. Keep in mind, though, that fertilizer is only useful if the plant is actually growing: a plant in dark, cool, dry conditions is not going to need nearly as much fertilizer as a plant being grown with as much light, heat and humidity as it can handle.
I'm unsure whether there are cultivars of P. bipinnatifidum out there. 'Hope' is sometimes sold as a cultivar of P. bipinnatifidum, and does resemble it strongly (except for being, usually, a bit smaller and more dense: it's nice. I like it.), but other times it's made to sound more like a cross of P. bipinnatifidum with something else. We had them at work, though I've never owned one personally.
Asiatica Nursery sells a chartreuse variety they call 'Gold Satin,' which is $60 for a very young plant (3.5" pot), said to be a slow grower and somewhat more delicate than the species. They also carry two plants which are claimed as crosses of P. bipinnatifidum with another species: the $100 'Jungle Fever' (chartreuse, large leaves; lobes are much less deeply cut than on P.bipinnatifidum) and the $100 'Ring of Fire' (long, skinny, slightly lobed green leaves with irregular yellow variegation and red to brown new growth).
Asiatica also sells a plant that strongly resembles P. bipinnatifidum but is a distinct species, P. warscewiczii, which is much less outrageously priced (a veritable bargain at $28 for a 3.5-inch pot) and looks kind of like the heavy-metal version of P. bipinnatifidum, being sharper and pointier all around. (Sort of what you'd expect if you could cross P. bipinnatifidum with Polyscias fruticosa.) I kind of want a P. warscewiczii,13 though the davesgarden.com page for it includes a comment advising that it's probably way too big to be a houseplant.
Although plants will eventually become too large to be grown indoors (for most of us anyway -- I suppose if you have a downstairs ballroom or something you'd be okay), this takes a fairly long time, and even if it did get too large, you could cut it back or give it to a deserving botanical garden in your area or something like that. Certainly the plant's eventual size shouldn't be a reason not to get one, if you want one. Flowering indoors does happen but is extremely unlikely, so you may never be able to gather the family around a crackling Philodendron on a cold winter's night either, but at least now you have something interesting to tell visitors who ask about the plant.
Or at least you can tell the subset of visitors who like hearing about beetle orgies.
Which is probably most of them. Your friends are cool, right?
- jxb.oxfordjournals.org (.pdf file)
- New York Times
Photo credits: as indicated in the text.
1 The Araceae is the aroid family of plants: a fair number of common houseplants are aroids, including Dieffenbachia spp., Aglaonema spp., Zamioculcas zamiifolia, Anthurium andraeanum, Syngonium podophyllum, Epipremnum aureum, Monstera deliciosa, Zantedeschia cvv., Scindapsus pictus, Spathiphyllum cvv., Homalomena cvv. like 'Selby,' 'Emerald Gem,' and 'Perma Press," and a fairly large number of Philodendrons, including P. hederaceum, P. 'Moonlight,' P. 'Autumn,' P. 'Red Emerald,' P. 'Congo Rojo,' and many more.
Of these, only Anthurium andraeanum cvv., Zantedeschia cvv., and Spathiphyllum cvv. are grown for the flowers.
2 This is the definite, for sure, official, rock-solid name, though it's more common to find it identified as P. selloum in books, on-line, in grower availability lists, and everywhere else. The reason for this is that at one point, P. bipinnatifidum and P. selloum were believed to be two distinct species, based on differences in their foliage, and of the two, everybody apparently liked P. selloum best, perhaps because it's easier to spell. (This name comes from German traveler Friedrich Sello, later "Sellow", 1789 – 1831; I don't know why he was worth commemorating this way. Bipinnatifidum, on the other hand, makes no sense to me at all, because the plant doesn't seem very bipinnate to me. Or pinnate, even, for that matter.a) It has since been determined that the two names were the same species, a tragically common occurrence with Philodendron spp., which often produce highly variable leaves at different stages of development. Bipinnatifidum was the first name used for the plant, so it's correct, but people are much more likely to know what you're talking about if you say selloum instead.
Not only is selloum more recognizable, but I like it better, too. I'm using bipinnatifidum for the following three reasons: 1) I'm hoping that if I am forced to type it enough, I will eventually be able to type "bipinnatifidum" more or less fluidly, as has happened for similar long and difficult words like binnendijkii, Solenostemon, phyllostachya, tithymaloides, chrysocardium, and nummularius, which I can now type as fast as I type anything else and usually even manage to spell correctly.b 2) Like it or not, it's the correct name. 3) Usually when I realize I'm using an incorrect name, I feel obligated to go back into the older posts and edit all references to that particular plant, which involves opening all such posts, as well as multiple edits to a Word document and frequently also the updating of at least one spreadsheet, and so changing one name in the blog can take a few hours to do, making it fairly important to me to get the name right the first time.
a The word pinnate means that the leaf is divided into leaflets, basically. Zamioculcas zamiifolia has pinnate leaves, as do Murraya paniculata, Nephrolepis exaltata, and Cyrtomium falcatum. Bipinnate is when the leaflets are themselves divided into leaflets: think Polyscias fruticosa. There also exists the term tripinnate, which is when the leaf is divided into leaflets which are themselves divided into leaflets which are divided into leaflets; Davallia spp. is the only tripinnate houseplant example I can come up with, but I know there are others. I suppose Philodendron bipinnatifidum, though not actually pinnate (because the leaves, though very deeply lobed, are still not actually separated into leaflets), is close enough that the name sort of makes sense, and especially on the picture of the single gigantic leaf toward the top of the post (Thanks, Julie!), the various lobes are slightly lobed themselves. So it kinda makes sense, and is probably technically correct, but this still wouldn't be a plant I would point to as a good example of bipinnate leaves.
b This had indeed happened, by the time I finished writing this profile. Bipinnatifidum bipinnatifidum bipinnatifidum bipinnatifidum bipinnatifidum. See?
3 Though the word "hardy" needs some heavy qualifiers on it, which I'll cover later on in the Temperature section.
4 (Though perhaps not normal enough, alas.)
5 (Most Philodendrons don't.)
6 My original "person" for this plant was "Tweaker," because the sheer quantity of pointlessly expended energy reminded me of meth addicts. As I looked further into their pollination, "Nightclub Owner" came to seem more appropriate, and is also a more respectable-sounding personality to give the plant.
7 Scarab beetles (Scarabaeidae), more or less. The few pictures I've managed to find on-line (the first picture on this page, e.g.) of Erioscelis look a great deal like the bugs I know as "June bugs," which are in the genus Phyllophaga, also of the Scarabaeidae. Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) are also in this general area of beetledom.
North American Scarabaeidae species will not pollinate Philodendron bipinnatifidum, nor will any other native insect; it's unclear whether they're not able to or just not interested, but I'd bet not interested.
8 It's apparently an unpleasant odor, too, at least in the species Philodendron solimoesense: this article describes the pollination process from start to finish in detail, but they never get any more specific about the odor than "unpleasant," which is frustrating. (Unpleasant like rotting fish? Like pig shit? Like rusty water? Overripe bananas? Sour milk? Feet?) Is smell not considered an objective measurement, so they don't bother to include it at all? (And if so, then why bother saying it's unpleasant?) I'd really like to know.
9 They're capable of warming themselves up enough to fly "through contractions of thoracic muscles." Though obviously they would rather not do this any more than you'd want to keep yourself warm during a snowstorm by doing jumping jacks.
10 The Philodendron solimoesense article claims about 25-30% of the sterile male flowers are eaten by the beetles; I don't know for sure that the same is true of P. bipinnatifidum but it seems likely. One source I ran into implied that this might be the only source of food used by adult beetles (which, if they're like their relatives, Japanese beetles and June bugs and such, they spend most of their lives underground as grubs, and have a relatively short adult life, so this is plausible).
11 I guess the overall situation is like circuit parties, but for heterosexual beetles.
12 I don't exactly endorse this idea. I've bought fairly large numbers of seeds on two different occasions from seedman.com, and none of those turned out to be good investments, by which I mean that I don't have a single plant living with me that I raised from seedman.com seed. This is, I think, not seedman.com's fault: I didn't have a particularly good germination set-up, and the few that did germinate failed because of me screwing up somehow. If I were to try again, and I kind of would like to, I think, I would be inclined to try something more like the vermiculite-and-plastic arrangement I've used for propagating Begonias and germinating Anthurium seeds. Whether or not I'd try growing any Philodendron bipinnatifidum seedlings, though, is uncertain. I really only have just so much room here.
13 Fortunately (?), I will easily be able to resist temptation, as 1) I have money right now and 2) am still not over being appalled at the line "Omg, Ms. Henderson is an idiot, and omg I hope that she bestows her patronage on someone else's nursery," and some of the other stuff being said on that same page.