Monday, March 16, 2009

Sailor (Philodendron hederaceum)

Philodendron hederaceum is a fairly tolerant, attractive houseplant. It's very similar to, and often confused with, pothos (Epipremnum aureum), to which it is related.1 Personally, I like it better than pothos, and find it easier to grow (hence the lower difficulty rating), but I am not typical that way.

In fairness to the Philodendron, a ridiculously large number of people (including a shocking number of professional plant people) are unable to tell the difference between the two, so maybe they only think they like pothos better. (See the special Epipremnum or Philodendron? post for ways to distinguish between the two plants.)

Top center: Philodendron hederaceum. Bottom left: P. hederaceum 'Aureum' or 'Lemon-Lime' or whatever: it has a lot of aliases. Bottom right: P. hederaceum micans.

Philodendron hederaceum is originally from most of South America, northward through Central America and a little of Mexico, plus parts (all?) of the Caribbean. It's been cultivated as an indoor tropical plant for literally hundreds of years, ever since it arrived in Western civilization2 with Captain William Bligh sometime in the 1790s. Captain Bligh is the same Captain Bligh of "Mutiny on the Bounty" fame, and his collection of Philodendron hederaceum, as best as I can determine, occurred on the voyage after the one with the mutiny.

The original purpose of the first voyage, the mutiny voyage, was to collect breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis, a plant in the Moraceae3 which produces large edible fruits that taste like bread or potatoes, depending on who you believe and how it's prepared) from Tahiti and take it to the Caribbean, where it would provide food for the slaves on the various English plantations there. This, obviously, was a slightly evil mission: first off, Bligh was doing it for money (apparently there was some kind of cash prize being offered for being the first person to pull this off), but more importantly, any new, easily-produced source of food would also make it possible for even more slaves to be kidnapped and brought to the region, so, well . . . I guess I'm digressing. The point is, it was a good thing for a lot of people that the little mutiny happened and delayed the Artocarpus.

Bligh stopped in Tahiti for five months, where he and the crew collected small breadfruit plants, which they potted and tended. About three weeks after they left Tahiti, the famous mutiny happened, and the mutineers sent Bligh and those loyal to him off in the Bounty's launch, which sailed around in circles in Polynesia for a long time before finally reaching Batavia (the old name for the Indonesian city now called Jakarta). A few of the plants were even still alive at this point, but they had to be abandoned in Batavia while Bligh and the remaining crewmen returned to England through means I'm unclear on.

Not long after his return, Bligh tried the whole thing again, and this time more successfully, bringing Artocarpus to the Caribbean and collecting samples of Philodendron hederaceum to take back with him to England. 'Cause, you know, why the hell not? And apparently Philodendron hederaceum was then maintained in one or more botanical gardens in England for many years.

Philodendron hederaceum.

That's more or less where the story would have ended, had advances in insulation and heating not made it possible for people to start bringing plants indoors and keep them there year-round. Cuttings of P. hederaceum were shipped to Florida (Not just shipped, but smuggled: Lynn P. Griffith, Jr. claims that cuttings of P. hederaceum were brought to the U.S. on Puerto Rican rum-runners. He doesn't specify when this would have been, but if rum-runners were involved, I assume it would have been during Prohibition, which was between 1920 and 1933.4), where growers produced the plants in huge numbers, and then sent them north to the larger population centers to be sold to the public. I presume that the same sort of thing happened elsewhere, though perhaps without the rum-runners.

Philodendron hederaceum has a large number of aliases, because it was apparently "discovered" over and over for a while. I was able to find about twelve: P. acrocardium, deviatum, harlowii, cordatum, oxycardium, scandens, micans, miduhoi, cuspidatum, microphyllum, pittier, hoffmanii, and various combinations of the above like hederaceum var. oxycardium. A few of these names are currently assigned to other species (cordatum, e.g.), but most are now meaningless.

You'll still find references to oxycardium, scandens, and cordatum in houseplant books, on websites, etc., but hederaceum is the actual correct name. I promise. The reason for all the names, in part, is that the plant has a really variable habit, depending on its age and growing conditions,5 so specimens collected at different times and places may differ in size, habit, coloration, and texture. Sort of the way the below pictures might not be recognizable as the same person, if you didn't already know that they were:

Not that I'm claiming that Michael Jackson's face is naturally variable. But you get my point. So the botanists of yore weren't incompetent necessarily. (Though I'm sure some of them probably were.6) They just didn't have the advantage of genetic testing and long-term cultivation to help them out.

So: booze, mutiny, crime, boats, aliases -- it's a bit of a stretch, but I think this adds up to "sailor." Especially if the plant swore a lot (and we don't know for a fact that it wouldn't, if it could). Now they've settled down, for the most part, and the most excitement the species sees is the development of a new cultivar every now and then, but there's a history. There's always a history.

Indoor care is really pretty simple, and goes more or less like this:

LIGHT: P. hederaceum will tolerate low light, for quite a long time, though like most "low-light" plants, it will do better if given bright indirect light. The ones at work tend to scorch a bit if they're too close to the ceiling (where it's very bright and very hot), particularly the chartreuse variety, so I don't recommend full sun.

TEMPERATURE: It's best not to go below 50ºF (10ºC), and anything below 60ºF (16ºC) is probably pushing it. My own plants, I found, did better when I moved them from a normal room-temperature, fairly dim location to a warmer, brighter spot near the ceiling: for various reasons I think it was more the temperature than the light that spurred faster growth. Don't get carried away, but normal indoor temperatures that are a little on the warm side (maybe 75-80ºF / 24-27ºC) is good, particularly if you've got the humidity to go with it.

Philodendron hederaceum micans.

HUMIDITY: P. hederaceum doesn't seem to be terribly set back by dry indoor air, but moist air does seem to lead to larger leaves and faster growth.

WATERING: I have the best luck with mine when I let them dry about halfway down between waterings.7 They'll handle more frequent watering than that, to a point; they're not as happy about getting any drier than that.

PROPAGATION: Like pothos, these are easily rooted in water, and can be grown in water more or less indefinitely. Unlike pothos, P. hederaceum transfers from water to soil easily, too. Vermiculite also works to root cuttings, though it seems to be slower. Commercial propagators use leaf-and-node cuttings in soil: you just go down the length of the vine, cutting between nodes,8 and then plant the cuttings such that the nodes are below the soil. At work, it works better to do two-node cuttings, taking the leaf off of the lower node and leaving a leaf on the upper one. It doesn't really seem to matter a lot, but sometimes when I bury a one-leaf node, the attached leaf will rot and I'll lose the cutting. With two-node cuttings, I know I don't have to bury any of the leaf, and then they don't rot.

Philodendron hederaceum 'Aureum' or 'Lemon-Lime' or whatever you want to call it.

GROOMING: Nothing huge; mostly just a dead leaf here, a dead leaf there.9 Repot when the plant is noticeably needing water more often than it used to. Eventually, the vines will get so long that they're kind of difficult to manage (One site said they can get to be 20 feet long indoors.), in which case they may be cut back. It doesn't really matter that much where you cut, though for best results I'd leave a few leaves on the vine, just so it has some energy to resprout with.

I don't often see it done, but training plants to climb may be worthwhile if you're looking for larger leaves. They're not very good at climbing on their own, though: we have one at work in a hanging basket that's climbed its hanger and is working on the metal braces in the greenhouse roof --

-- but as you can imagine, it's not finding much to grab on to.

There are a few pictures of successfully trained plants on moss poles at, if you're interested.

PESTS: I've never really seen any pests on any of my plants or the work plants. The growers' guide lists several kinds of bacterial pathogens, and also warns about aphids, caterpillars, mealybugs, root mealybugs, scale, and thrips, but these must be more of a concern for producers than consumers. So be prepared, and check your plants once in a while (particularly for spider mites and mealybugs), but really they're fairly pest-free indoors.

There are at least three cultivars, in addition to the plain-green species form. I've seen the chartreuse variety variously referred to as 'Lemon-Lime' or 'Aureum,' and probably there are other names I have yet to run across. It's basically the same as the others, though as I mentioned previously, it does seem more prone to sunburn.10

'Aureum' / 'Lemon-Lime' again.

'Micans,' which is sometimes P. micans or P. hederaceum micans, has a velvety texture, with a reddish cast. It can be very pretty if well-cared for, but doesn't (in my experience) tolerate low light as well: the new growth comes in smaller and the distance between leaves will be much greater. When I first discovered micans, I got kind of obsessed with it, and bought several, and then later I wondered what I was thinking and got rid of about half of them. This is something that happens to me sometimes.11 I still have a couple, though, and like them very much.

'Brasil' (or 'Brazil') is a cultivar from Twyford International12 which is mostly green but with a yellow center, so named because it vaguely resembles the Brazilian flag:

'Brasil' doesn't seem to be substantially more difficult than any of the others, though it does seem to like to revert to solid green, which is annoying.

I have all four of the above varieties, and they behave more or less identically, though I think 'Aureum' is my favorite. It's a nice color: somehow it's not as harsh as the Epipremnum aureum equivalent ('Neon'), and I like the way the new orangish leaves go with the green and chartreuse of the older ones. I am admittedly a little puzzled about how 'Aureum' contains enough chlorophyll to be able to make a living, but clearly it gets by somehow.

It seems like a fast-growing, adaptable, easily-propagated plant like P. hederaceum should be invasive in tropical areas, but I didn't find much evidence that this is so (unlike Epipremnum aureum, which is invasive in a lot of places). In fact, I only found one warning about it, and it didn't include any specific information. Heart-leaf philodendron also has a common name ("vilevine")13 that suggests it's problematic, but that doesn't necessarily mean invasive.

Almost all houseplants are cultivated far away from their actual point of origin, and consequently have a long trip of some kind or another in their past. P. hederaceum's is really only of interest because it's associated with a man we know for other things. It's worth bearing in mind, though, that even the houseplants that are so common and familiar to us were once the Hot New Thing of their day. Even heart-leaf philodendrons were exotic to somebody, somewhere, once.


Photo credits: Michael Jackson pictures from public domain, I think. Pretty sure. Brazilian flag from Wikipedia. All others are my own.

References / Further Reading:

1 They're in the same family, the Araceae, like Spathiphyllum spp., Anthurium andraeanum, Syngonium podophyllum, Dieffenbachia spp., Scindapsus pictus, Alocasia spp., Aglaonema spp., and so on.
2 I know Western (i.e., European) civilization isn't the only one that matters or the only one that ever did anything cool. However, as far as I've ever seen, it is the main one to bring plants indoors for decorative purposes, and as such, it's the one that's relevant for our purposes here.
3 Which makes it a cousin of houseplants like Ficus elastica and Ficus benjamina, as well as mulberry trees (Morus spp.) and the osage orange (Maclura pomifera).
4 It's unclear whether the plants were also being smuggled, i.e., illegal, or whether the plants were just used to hide the alcohol. I have a hard time imagining anybody outlawing heart-leaf philodendrons, but weirder things have happened.
5 A lot of Philodendron spp. are like this, it turns out, especially the climbers.
6 I forget where I saw it, but I have a dim memory of seeing a half-joking rule of thumb that 20% of people in any profession are incompetent. Sounds maybe a little high (I'd guess more like 15%), but I'd agree it's somewhere in that neighborhood.
7 This is probably the single biggest care difference between P. hederaceum and pothos -- with pothos, you need to let it dry almost entirely, not just halfway. The Philodendron won't keel over and die if it's allowed to dry out, but that's not the way to get on its good side, either.
8 A node is the point where a leaf attaches to the main stem. A lot of plant-propagation depends on knowing where the nodes are, especially for cane- and vine-type plants.
9 . . . here a dead leaf, there a dead leaf, everywhere a dead leaf dead leaf . . .
10 It may be that 'Aureum' isn't more susceptible to sunburn, it's just that sunburn shows up better on a bright yellow plant than it does on a darker one.
11 Monstera deliciosa was like that but much worse, because they're larger plants to begin with. I've also gone bonkers for Peperomia caperata and Strelitzia nicolai and then sort of regretted it later. It happens. It especially tends to happen when I'm writing the plant profiles, which I know I've mentioned before.
12 Plant propagators and tissue-culturers based, I think, in Apopka, Florida, though I had a hard time finding an actual physical address. They are responsible for the U.S. supply of, or hold the patents on, or have applied for the patents for, a lot of the plants I've featured on this blog, including Aglaonema 'Red Gold' (still alive and presentable, by the way, though it's been grumpy lately) and 'Golden Bay,' Philodendron 'Xanadu' (well, we all make mistakes), Dieffenbachia 'Tropic Marianne' and 'Tropic Rain,' Anthurium andraeanum 'Red Hot' and 'Gemini,' etc., and they should totally send me some free evaluation plants of Dieffenbachia 'Tropic Forest' at their earliest convenience because I can't seem to find any anywhere else and I really really want one. Like, desperately, do I want one. (I know you guys read this: I see the hits from Apopka on Sitemeter. So c'mon. It's just one plant. Pretty please?)
13 Though it's not particularly common, as "common" names go: I only ran into it in a couple places on-line. I've never heard anyone actually say "vilevine." And if they did, I probably wouldn't have any idea what they were talking about.


Anonymous said...

Nice article, Mr. S.
Very informative.

i was still calling it P. scandens, though. what is your source for finding the current correct Latin names of plants?

Thanks, Elsie

mr_subjunctive said...

I usually go mostly by what seems to be turning up the most when I do web searches, though in this particular case, I was convinced by Not only did they sound pretty certain of themselves, but they also had a lot of details and background and stuff.

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themanicgardener said...

That was great. Loved all the history.

Anonymous said...

I have noticed large brown spots forming on the leaves of my Brasil. I just transplanted it into a much larger pot. Also I have been giving it liquid fertilizer and perhaps a bit too much love (water?. What do you think is the culprit? Or is it all three? BTW, you are amazing!

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, honestly, I'm not sure, though I know what you're talking about, I think, because my plants were doing that a little bit when they were at the apartment. Whatever it was, they got over it.

At work, when we had the hanging baskets up high in the greenhouse during the summer, a lot of the leaves would turn brown from the tip back, or from an edge, which was either burn from too much light or heat or both, or inadequate watering, or maybe too dry and too bright/hot. They'd usually stop doing this during the winter and then start up again for the spring. I don't think that's what was happening back at the apartment, because it came on kind of suddenly and I hadn't changed anything about what I was doing or where the plants were.

So I'm kind of stabbing in the dark here, but I'd guess, in order of decreasing probability,

1) too much heat
2) too much light
3) not enough water.

Try changing stuff around and see if anything makes it better, or just wait and the plant will probably get over it on its own.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Thanks for the quick and informative reply. I guess it could just be getting used to my apartment as I just bought it and hopefully things will settle down in the fall. Perhaps this is one foliage I do not need to put on the windowsill at the hottest time of the day in the sun. You are spot on!

Alice, near Boise said...

I found your blog when I typed in "growing a holly philodendron." I have a mystery plant which I would describe as a philodendron, but this one has attractive holes in each leaf. It is a rather tender looking philodendron, vs. a thick, glossy-leafed plant. Got a few starts from a friend who said it is a difficult-to-start plant, unlike a "regular philly." I found this to be true--it takes a long time to root the plant clippings in water, and from water to soil, only one of five clippings lived. So, do you have information about this plant? By the way, I will pay attention to the number of nodes and leaves from now on.

mr_subjunctive said...

Alice, near Boise:

Based on the description, I'm thinking maybe you have Monstera adansonii (photo here). There may be another very similar species, besides adansonii.

I've never grown one of these personally, at home, but we had them at work. My impression from work was that they were basically a more difficult Epipremnum: higher humidity requirements, lower cold tolerance, more prone to spider mites, etc. But I never tested this by bringing one home, so I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to help much.

And if it's not M. adansonii, then obviously I'm really, really unhelpful.

Alice, near Boise said...

Thanks, Mr. Subjunctive, I think I have a Philodendron adansonii. The picture is as close as you can get. It seems to like it in my home, so I must be doing something right: let it get too dry, then flood with water with a little fertilizer every time I water. And, it's high on a shelf, with rather poor natural light during the day.

Alê G. said...

Any abandoned terrain here gets completely filled with this guy. I don't know what allows you to classify something as "invasive", but, if I had to guess, that would be it. There's this abandoned place I always drive by that has beautiful heart leaves planning to cover the entire wall, and inside it's absolutely crowded. That's where I'll get my cuttings soon enough.

Aspidistra Guy said...

It is just a few hours past St. Valentine's day as I post this. I'm used to calling them 'Heartleaf Philodendrons'. Given their delicate appearance, I used to think they were difficult. Once I started to grow them I got over that notion. I grew one side by side with an Epipremnum to study the difference. I noticed the philodendron is better at handling cold than Epipremnum as far as leaf damage goes. However, the Epipremnum is easier to propagate (I find) and it gets chunkier and more robust -less space between leaf nodes- with higher light levels. The philodendron actually grows longer spaces between the leaf nodes in higher light. In very low light, Philodendron hederaceum manages to look better than Epipremnum.

Anonymous said...

Now I want to call mine Pirate, because ships, rum, crime! Thanks for the hysterical reviews, loving them!

Anonymous said...

Still enjoying your articles! Thank you for giving these prosaic gems to humanity!