Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fun With Plant Names

At Garden Web this weekend, someone asked a question about the difference between Monstera deliciosa and split-leaf philodendrons. I answered and said that there wasn't a difference, that both names referred to the same plant, which led to a long chain of posts which culminated in the realization that people sometimes also call Philodendron bipinnatifidum "split-leaf philodendron," which does kind of make sense, since its leaves are split, and it is a Philodendron, and that was the source of the confusion, though there are multiple Monsteras and multiple Philodendrons, and also plants that are called Philodendrons, which makes it all a little more complicated than that.

In the process of realizing this, at one point, I was going to write a list of which plants were which, and how to distinguish the similarly-named plants from one another, but it got wicked complicated really fast, so I decided it would be more appropriate as a blog post than as a post to Garden Web, both because it was going to wind up being long and because it might actually have been entertaining -- since stuff posted to GW is legally property of GW (or so the terms of service insists), I try not to throw away good material on GW if I can use it at PATSP. And so here we are instead.

First, there is the plant Monstera deliciosa, which started the whole mess and is called "split-leaf philodendron" or "swiss cheese plant," though it is not a Philodendron in the botanical sense. It is not made of swiss cheese, either, incidentally.

Monstera deliciosa.

There's a second, much less common "swiss cheese plant," sometimes called "swiss cheese philodendron," which is also a Monstera, but a different one, Monstera adansonii (sometimes Monstera obliqua). It is not a Philodendron or made of swiss cheese either.

Monstera adansonii.

There's also a second "split-leaf philodendron," Philodendron bipinnatifidum, which actually is a real Philodendron, though the common name it usually goes by is "tree philodendron." It is probably better known as Philodendron selloum, though I'm pretty sure Philodendron bipinnatifidum is the current correct name.

A not-great photo of a Philodendron bipinnatifidum.

Most of the problem with the above group, and the reason why it all got so confusing, is that the botanical name Philodendron has become part of the common name of plants which are not Philodendrons botanically. This is a situation that's not incredibly common, though I can think of other examples.1 So that's the whole "split-leaf philodendron" thing.

(As a side note: I have a terrible time writing anything about Philodendron bipinnatifidum, which is going to make the upcoming Philodendron bipinnatifidum profile that much more difficult, because I get it mixed up with the plant Philodendron bipennifolium, a vining plant with a similar botanical name. Its common name is "horse-head philodendron," because apparently when you take lots of psychoactive drugs and then squint at it until your eyes are almost closed, the leaves kind of look like horses' heads. I don't see it personally, but that's what I am told.)

I think this is/was (I don't have it anymore) a Philodendron bipennifolium, though I was never positive about that. There's also a "fiddle-leaf philodendron," which looks a lot like this but is allegedly different. It might be that this is a fiddle-leaf instead of a horse-head, or that fiddle-leaf and horse-head both refer to the same plant, or any number of other screwy things. Let's try to focus, though.

But the Monstera-Philodendron crowd is not the most confusing such group. Misleading common names are all over the place.2 And when both the botanical and common names are involved at the same time, trying to straighten out what's what can become nightmarishly complex. Witness the steaming hot mess that is the word "pothos:"

There is a plant commonly known as "pothos," which has the botanical designation Epipremnum aureum. lists as synonyms Epipremnum pinnatum, Philodendron nechodomii, Pothos aureus, Scindapsus aureus, and Scindapsus pinnatus.

Epipremnum aureum 'Marble Queen.'

Epipremnum aureum is very similar to another fairly commonly-sold plant, Philodendron hederaceum, to the point where a lot of people call Epipremnums "philodendrons" as more or less a common name. (This irritated me enough that I wrote a post specifically about how to tell them apart.)

Philodendron hederaceum.

There is also an actual genus, containing several species, by the botanical name of Pothos. I could not locate a usable picture of an actual Pothos-pothos. (The single non-usable picture I could find is of Pothos longipes and doesn't do much to illustrate the plant.)

Last is Scindapsus pictus, which is usually given the common name of "satin pothos," "silk pothos," or "silver pothos." Worse, Exotic Angel, pulling a fourth genus out of their asses just to ruin my life,3 sells Scindapsus pictus under the fake botanical name Philodendron 'Silver.'

Scindapsus pictus.

If you spend enough time thinking about what the above all means, it can develop a sort of Laurel-and-Hardy Abbott-and-Costello, "Who's-on-first?" sort of quality. So see if you can keep this straight:

  • If somebody says Epipremnum aureum, they almost always mean "pothos," not Pothos.
  • Scindapsus pictus means "silver pothos" or "satin pothos" but not Pothos or "pothos."
  • "Pothos" generally denotes Epipremnum aureum but can on occasion also mean Scindapsus pictus, and virtually never means Pothos.
  • Pothos could mean Pothos, but more likely means "pothos," or "satin pothos," which are actually Epipremnum aureum and Scindapsus pictus, respectively.
  • "Satin pothos" means Scindapsus pictus, but not "pothos" or Pothos.
  • "Philodendron," in the context of viney-type plants, usually means Philodendron hederaceum, but on occasion can refer to other Philodendron species, Epipremnum aureum, or even Scindapsus pictus, when Exotic Angel is involved.
  • Epipremnum pinnatum is "pothos" (or, to a few people, "philodendron") but not Pothos or Philodendron.
  • Philodendron nechodomii likewise means "pothos," which is Epipremnum, or "philodendron," but not Philodendron or Pothos.
  • Pothos aureus is a Pothos that actually refers to "pothos" (Epipremnum aureum) instead of Pothos.
  • Scindapsus aureus and Scindapsus pinnatus likewise mean "pothos" and Epipremnum, not Scindapsus.
  • Philodendron 'Silver' means Scindapsus pictus, and "silver pothos," but not Philodendron, or Pothos, though I suppose a case could be made for "philodendron" or "pothos."
I tried doing a Venn diagram for all this but gave up when it became clear that the diagram would have to be six-dimensional. And then I started smoking again. And started shooting heroin.

Just kidding. I didn't really start smoking again. (Smoking is bad for you!)

And that, kids, is why it's a good idea not to pay too much attention to common names. Or botanical names either, possibly. We should maybe just name them all "pothos" (since clearly the name "pothos" has a head start) and call it a day.


1 Other examples of botanical names bleeding into the common names of a different genus:
  • One occasionally sees references to "cordyline dracaenas," on availability lists or whatever, which are usually Cordyline australis. Cordyline australis more typically goes by the common name of "spikes," or "cabbage palms," though they are not cabbage, palms, or even related to cabbage or palms.
  • There is also the strange case of the "night-blooming cereus," which sometimes actually is a Cereus (generally Cereus peruvianus), but seems to refer just as often to night-blooming cacti of the Epiphyllum, Selenicereus, or Hylocereus families.
  • Then there are a few thoughtful plants that incorporate a genus name in their common name but at least give you clues that they're not really of that genus, like for example "false agave" (Furcraea foetida) and "false aralia" (Schefflera elegantissima).
  • But not all pretend aralias are so honest: the "dinner plate aralia" and "balfour aralia" are Polyscias balfouriana, the "ming aralia" and "parsley aralia" are Polyscias fruticosa, the "snowflake aralia" is Trevisia palmata, and the "Japanese aralia" is Fatsia japonica. Actual Aralias do exist, but are not usually kept as houseplants.
  • One of the worst offenders has to be the common "geranium," which is actually Pelargonium x hortorum.
  • "Nephthytis" is Syngonium podophyllum, not Nephthytis. (I am particularly bothered by this one, for reasons I cannot articulate.)
  • "Florist's cinerarias" are Pericallis.
  • "Florist's gloxinias" actually were Gloxinia at one time, but are now Sinningia.

2 A very few:
  • Neither Screw pines (Pandanus spp.) nor Norfolk Island Pines (Araucaria heterophylla) are actual pines (Pinus spp.).
  • Madagascar palms (Pachypodium spp.), Ponytail palms (Beaucarnea recurvata), and sago palms (Cycas spp.) are not palms (Arecaceae), either.
  • Pencil cactus (Euphorbia tirucalli) is not a cactus (Cactaceae).
  • Corn plants (Dracaena fragrans) aren't corn plants (Zea mays).
  • Orange jasmine (Murraya paniculata) is not related to jasmine (Jasminum spp.), nor are Madagascar jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda), night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum), Confederate jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), cape jasmine (Gardenia jasminoides) or crape jasmine (Tabernaemontana divaricata). Most of these are not related to one another, either. On the plus side, apparently wherever you are in the world, you get a plant to call "jasmine," which is nice. Or at least very egalitarian.
  • Asparagus ferns (Asparagus spp.) are not ferns (Pteridophyta).
  • Strawberry begonias (Saxifraga stolonifera) are neither Begonias nor strawberries (Fragaria spp.).
  • Neither African violets (Saintpaulia ionantha cvv.) nor Persian violets (Exacum affine) are violets (Viola spp.)
  • Peace lilies (Spathiphyllum cvv.) are neither lilies (Liliaceae) nor especially peaceful.
  • "Lucky bamboo" (Dracaena sanderiana) is not even close to bamboo (the Bambuseae tribe of the Poaceae).

3 It is perhaps the case that Exotic Angel plants has only a single, large, collective ass they pull wrong names out of, as opposed to each employee having to pull names out of his/r individual ass. If I knew someone who worked there I could ask them.


Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

Using wrong names for plants seems to be the norm for Exotic Angels. I don't know how many times I've run across this in local greenhouses.

What's wrong with these people?

CelticRose said...

Minor quibble: Abbott & Costello did the "Who's on First?" routine, not Laurel & Hardy.

Anonymous said...

Excuse me, but I think the plant in the photo you posted for Philodendron bipinnatifidum is actually P. xanadu. From what I observed, P. bipinnatifidums tend to have more wavy leaf margins.

Sorry for my bad english, I'm korean.

Lzyjo said...

Those common names, up to their old tricks!! I was just experience confusion between "split leaf" and "swiss cheese" I was looking for photos for to make a line drawing and it was a mush of confusion! My mom had two huge bipinnatifidums, one of the things she didn't kill, they got too big for the house and she donated them to the lobby of the local nature sanctuary, it was really weird seeing a piece of the house there, always!

mr_subjunctive said...

Water Roots:

Couldn't tell you. Perhaps I should organize a customer feedback campaign about this? Set the PATSP hordes loose on them and watch them tremble? They do have a survey form on their website.


Fixed. Thanks.


True, on the leaf-margins, but I've never seen 'Xanadu' leaves that big, especially on a plant being grown indoors. I think this is a younger P. bipinnatifidum, which will eventually develop leaves large enough to have the wavy edges, because the alternative is that this is the biggest 'Xanadu' I've ever seen in person or in photographs.

Also, your English is perfect, actually. No need to apologize.


Yeah, that's the thing about them, they get way too big for most houses. WCW bought one from work at a steep discount (because it was taking up basically an entire table, like four feet tall and eight feet wide -- gorgeous plant, though) that filled up the back of her SUV. Like, everything but the driver's seat. She doesn't have a big house, so I have no idea how she made that work.

Ivynettle said...

Somebody should write a book about all those vine-y aroids. I mean, I find it easy to distinguish Monstera/Philodendron/Epipremnum/Scindapsus, but several of our apprentices have trouble with Epipremnum aureum and Philodendron hederaceum. And even I haven't been able to find a book that can tell me for sure whether E. aureum or pinnatum is the correct name, or M. adansonii or obliqua. (Finally managed to get my greedy hands on some cuttings of the latter, whatever it's named, YAY!) And except for Ph. erubescens and Ph. tuxtlanum, all the Philodendrons at work are referred to and sold as Ph. panduriforme, which is a very sad state of affairs.

mr_subjunctive said...


Yeah, I really have very little patience, normally, for people in the profession who can't distinguish Epipremnum and Philodendron. Look at a petiole, there's your answer. (Obviously, people not in the profession have less reason to notice or care, so I don't mind that as badly.)

It's entirely possible that nobody actually knows, on the E. aureum / E. pinnatum thing. I go with aureum because:

1) It's the one I learned first,
2) The plant is golden in color but not arranged especially pinnately, so aureum makes more logical sense, and
3) Aureum seems to be the majority opinion as best as I can determine.

On Monstera adansonii / obliqua, I picked adansonii for the sole reason that that's what goes with, and he's suitably nitpicky about these things that I figure I can trust his judgment.

I don't have any M. adansonii personally; we had some at work for a long time but I just never liked them -- I never knew whether that was because of the particular specimens, or because of the species as a whole. Work is the only place I've ever seen them for sale around here, and they're all gone now. (I think they were a victim of the spring let's-make-enough-room-for-the-annuals purge, but there'd been spider mite troubles too.)

Kenneth Moore said...

It was your "Pothos v. Philodendron" post that made me realize that my E. aureum "pothos" wasn't Pothos. I had assumed that "pothos" meant Pothos since I was, oh, seven years old or so? Why do people do this to us? It's like they want to make our brains smoke...

Hermes said...

Common names are a nightmare in this global age and unfortunately a lot of retail centres make it even worse by just getting them wrong. Then the botanists (bless 'em) change the scientific names and hell - great post on a tricky problem.

Ivynettle said...

I think I've usually used E. aureum, too, by much the same reasoning. Nice to know other people think along the same lines.

I can't remember seeing any M. adansoniis in stores, either. Only the few we had at work, and they were gone before I realized how rare they were, and one in the school greenhouse.
So I gladly took the oppurtunity to take cuttings from the one plant that had ended up in one of our offices.
(I'm always on the lookout for anything that I can grow as a hanging plant on one of my bookcases. Not the ideal solution, light-wise, but so far nothing's complaining too badly. And I haven't got anything with holes in the leaves yet, and if I wanted a M. deliciosa, I'd have to sacrifice either my bed or my desk.)

...I think I have my ramble-y week...

mr_subjunctive said...

Of course as soon as I say I've only seen Monstera adansonii at work, I immediately see one at an Ace Hardware in Iowa City.

(Also a very tiny Zamia NOID. And I bought what I hope is a Pachycereus marginatus at ex-work.)

Tigerdawn said...

Wow! So all this time I thought I didn't care for Philodendrons when it was actually the Epipremnums. It's not that they're a bad plant; I'm just mildly opposed to any plant that "everyone" has. There are too many awesome plants out there for Epipremnum to hoard everybodies' (everybodys'?) offices.

I really appreciate your kindness and patience with all of us on GW. You're the coolest!

Andrew said...

I miss my P. bipinnatifidium. Got too big and had to go.

In the world of hardy plants we'll get asked for "a snowball plant" - in spring they'll be talking about either a European Snowball (Viburnum) or Fragrant Snowball (Viburnum) and later they'll usually be talking about Hydrangea arborescens... I had one customer who recently was referring to a climbing hydrangea as "snowball" which doesn't even resemble any of these other plants (which is not even getting into the Climbing Hydrangeas which are not hydrangeas).

"Spirea" is another terrible one. you've got Spirea, False Spirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia), False Spirea (Astilbe sp.), False Spirea/False Astilbe (Aruncus dioicus), & "Blue Mist Spirea" (Caryopteris x clandonensis 'Blue Mist'). Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) used to be Spirea filipendula but now "Meadowsweet" is (apparently) a common name for the entire Spirea genus... but Meadowsweet is not a Spirea anymore (Fortunately few people call Spireas Meadowsweets so that's a small bit of luck there!).

Karen715 said...

Another tidbit about Exotic Angel. Several years ago when they introduced Carludovica 'Jungle Drum' to their line (and as far as I know, to the general houseplant trade) they did so without any botanical name at all. The tags just called it plain old "Jungle Drum". There were quite a few posts on Garden Web from people wondering what it was, and lots of guesses as to what genus it might belong to.

Finally, a poster at GW got in contact with someone of importance at EA. (Might have even been the owner, but I'm not sure, lo these many years later.) It was reported that he was completely, thoroughly, shocked to find out that there were houseplant consumers who actually cared about the Latin names of plants.

Given that mindset, is it any wonder that the rather cavalier naming practices continue to this day? It seems to have gone from don't bother at all, to "give them something, anything!"

Diane said...

I have a mental block re: the whole pothos etc. nightmare. I carefully read your other post about the philodendrons and then promptly forgot it all. Luckily nobody who comes to my house knows about plants so I just make up stuff.

The "lucky bamboo" thing drives me into a rage. Several people have proudly told me they have a bamboo plant on their desk. I want to tell them "No you don't" but it makes them so happy to think that they do. In case a tiny panda happens by, I guess.

mr_subjunctive said...


That actually explains a lot. I keep hoping that someone from EA will happen across one of my rants about this (Fun With Exotic Angel Tags would be the most obvious) and take it upon themselves to fix the tags situation, but I guess I shouldn't hold my breath.


I find it kind of upsetting too. I suppose it's easier to give people an ID that's familiar but wrong than it is to try to get them to learn a new word -- even if people learn new words all the time.

Though I object more strongly to the "lucky" than to the "bamboo."

Also it's good to be prepared for pandas.

mr_subjunctive said...

I mean, it's good to be genuinely prepared for pandas. The whole "lucky bamboo" thing is lulling thousands of people into a false sense of panda security.

daphne said...

apparently wherever you are in the world, you get a plant to call "jasmine,"

Aha- like jynnan tonnix.

Anonymous said...

Prey tell me. I got a nice Marble Queen Pothos and decided to trim it back to propogate several times over and normally this is quite easy. I can't tell you how many times I put a Golden Pothos in water and it thrived nicely. What is the deal with Marble Queen?

mr_subjunctive said...

I don't know. I don't particularly like 'Marble Queen,' so I haven't messed with it very much. In my very limited personal experience with pothos, 'Neon' is the problem child, but singling one out as a problem gives the false impression that there are others that are easier, which for some reason pothos and I don't get along and never have, even though it seems to grow just fine for everybody else.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply. Well most of the (marble Queen)cuttings died. If you don't have luck with Pothos I won't beat myself up then.

Anonymous said...

I have a rather odd question. I am getting all this sun and it's been mild lately. Spring doesn't feel very far way and I want to capitalize on it. I cannot find my Miracle Gro but I have liquid cactus and African Violet fertilizer. Can I use these on my Pothos, Spider and Heart leaf Philodendron or other such house plants? My African Violets all died.

mr_subjunctive said...


Yes. You can.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you so much!

Anonymous said...

I have not read all of the responses soaybe this was covered.
On this website
As well as expticrainforest.Com
Obliqua and adansonii are two different species.

Anonymous said...

Oh, didn't see this link.
I'll go read it now. I was up and down that site looking for that information about obliqua and adansonii.

Renrats said...

I. Love. You.

BanyanWanderer said...

P. bipinnatifidum is now Thaumatophyllum bipinnatifidum.

And the previous comment was right about your picture being of Thaumatophyllum xanadu.