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Understanding Habitat Origins for Houseplant Happiness: Philodendrons

Articles: Understanding Habitat Origins for Houseplant Happiness: Philodendrons

Winter 2024 

As you might have guessed from my previous article, I have a soft spot for begonias. But philodendrons have, just in the past couple of years, been competing for my big green heart’s attention, too—and winning!

In this article, I cover a lot of ground—where philodendrons come from, why I’m obsessed with them, and how easy and exciting they are to grow according to experts. If you haven’t tried growing philodendrons yourself, may you be encouraged to start. If philodendrons aren’t new to you, I offer suggestions for varieties to add to your collection. Ready? Let’s grow!

Philodendrons are immensely popular houseplants because of their ease of care, eye-popping foliage variety, and design versatility. Most philos have similar watering, lighting, feeding and temperature needs, making them a great go-to for novice and advanced houseplant owners alike.

Knowing where philodendrons come from can be helpful in caring for them. Native to tropical rainforests, philodendrons thrive in the dappled light and warm, humid conditions found under leafy canopies.

Philodendron 'Red Congo'. Credit: Costa Farms

For the indoor home gardener, this means growing them in bright, indirect light and at a room temp between 65-85 degrees Fahrenheit. And if you’ve got a humidifier you can place near them, even better.

The name Philodendron is made up of two Greek words: ‘philo’ means lover, ‘dendron’ means tree. Tree lovers they are, clinging to and climbing trees for support in their native habitats.

They are classified as epiphytic, meaning they send out aerial roots to obtain moisture from the air and nutrients from the trees they scramble up. Their roots get a good soak when it rains and the plants sustain themselves from humidity the rest of the time.

This growing habit makes philodendrons extra sensitive to overwatering, so water only when the top two inches of soil are dry to the touch. Note that there are exceptions to this because some species may require more water than others.

My small but growing philo collection originated from plant swaps I participated in throughout the pandemic. Most were rooted divisions or cuttings. I really enjoy the instant tropical look philodendrons bring to any space because of their showy, unique foliage, which looks especially striking when displayed among other plants for shape and textural contrast.

Most philos climb or trail while others stay more compact. As a plant and garden stylist, I often recommend philodendrons to clients and install them in their homes or offices because the plants are easy to care for and deliver immediate visual impact.

P. hederaceum ‘Micans'. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

P. hederaceum ‘Micans’ is the first philo I fell in love with. It has a beautiful vining habit and the heart-shaped foliage isn’t just one color, it’s several, depending on the amount of light it receives. The plant I grow has shades of bronze, green, and even pinkish-red. I’ve observed that the foliage will get darker green in less light.

Only a few years ago, ‘Micans’ was quite the “it” plant, and rather pricey because it was not widely available. Then, akin to its vigorous climbing nature, it started popping up everywhere.

Imagine my delight when I found a neglected trayful of four-inch ‘Micans’ at a local Outdoor Supply Hardware. I was confident I could save them. They weren’t dead, just desperate for water, warmth and light. And thanks to their scraggly appearance, I received a generous discount!

Turned out that the plants were easy to rehab, and fun to restyle using second-hand pots and macrame plant hangers. I gave all but one plant as a gift to family and friends, who were all very excited to receive it.

Today, P. ‘Micans’ is quite ubiquitous, available at just about any plant shop or nursery, but it has not grown out of favor with me.

I also grow P. ‘Red Emerald,’ a variety quite different than ‘Micans.’ It’s a climber with much larger, oblong heart-shaped leaves. I go for long stretches without watering it, and still, it rewards me with new leaves.

I’ve given it plentiful support with a tall wooden stake (to simulate the tree trunks it climbs in nature) and it receives diffused light from a western exposure.

The rest of my philo collection is huddled around my bedroom’s west-facing window. A local nursery gave me a ‘Florida Green’ (P. squamiferum x pedatum) because it wasn’t in “sellable” shape – not enough foliage, I presumed, because I did not find signs of pest infestation.

But I did see potential for a successful rehab, so I removed its spent leaves, repotted it in fresh, well-draining soil, and applied liquid fertilizer. Within a month, “Squami” responded to my care with steady growth, sending out one new fabulous leaf after another. The foliage is striking and unusual—large and lobed, reminding me of oak.

I’ve supported its need to climb with a sturdy coir (coconut fiber) pole. It also needs plentiful space to grow, so I’ve had to move it a couple of times. A good problem to have!

I’ve grouped most of my philodendrons closely together. The reason for this is threefold:

Philodendron 'Red Emerald'. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

> They all have similar light and water needs.

> Their leaves release moisture, so arranging them next to each other provides additional humidity. Philos are often found growing closely together in their native habitat, so grouping them is another way of replicating the conditions of where they grow in the wild.

> Side by side, the diversity of leaf shapes is a beautiful sight!

Philodendron billietiae. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon
Philodendron squamiferum x pedatum wanting to climb. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

Justin Hancock, a horticulturist with Costa Farms, one of the world’s leading houseplant growers, often reminds people that most philodendrons come from the tropical rainforests of Central and South America, so they favor warm, bright conditions.

He references plant origins in the informational copy he writes for the Costa Farms website, but “when I’m helping people one-on-one, most folks don’t care for the specifics of the plant’s native habitat, so I talk about care in the home without getting into factors like elevation or the specific region they come from.”

Headquartered in Miami, Costa Farms grows about two dozen different varieties of philodendron.

“It’s a phenomenally popular genus right now from a home gardener point of view, which makes it particularly exciting,” says Hancock, who also offers a frank, industry-insider perspective on the potential downside of this popularity.

“It’s a blessing and a curse that this popularity has driven so many tissue culture labs around the world to continually put in new species/varieties. Blessing because there are more varieties available than ever before; a curse because I’m afraid it’s too much and we’re going to see gardeners and growers overloaded and the industry crash from having too much new come on too fast.”

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Still, the philodendron’s appeal is undeniable in terms of care and beauty.

“Most philodendrons are on the easier side for the consumer to be successful with, and there’s a stunning array of leaf shapes, colors, and habits available within the genus,” says Hancock.

He offers sage advice for those who want to grow a philodendron for the first time, but hesitate because they think their living space might be too dark or too dry.

“Most of the time, lacking ideal conditions means not enough light—and happily, a good LED lamp can really help with that,” says Hancock. When he lived in Oregon, Hancock used LED ballasts to provide supplemental light to keep his philodendrons and other tropical plants “in camera-worthy shape.”

“You don’t need high-price grow lights … for the most part, light is light and what’s important to houseplants is that they get enough,” he says.

If your home has low humidity because of the furnace or fireplace running in winter, Hancock suggests thicker-leaf philodendron varieties. “In general, the thicker the leaf, the better they hold up to dry air.”

Hancock says the philodendron care question he is asked the most is about how much water to give them.

“I always feel bad that I can’t give people the ‘X amount Y times per week’ answer that they’re looking for since growing conditions—light especially—drives water usage. For most philodendrons, you’ll want to water them [when] the top quarter to half of the potting mix dries to the touch.”

He is also often asked about propagation. (“A lot of the viners are pretty easy from traditional tip cuttings”) and how to increase variegation on varieties like ‘Pink Princess.’ (“Sadly, you can’t, though giving it high light levels gives it more energy to put out more new growth, so you’ll have a higher opportunity to get more variegation.”)

Philodendron hederaceum 'Brasil'. Credit: Costa Farms
Philodendron 'Pink Princess'. Credit: Costa Farms

The most popular philodendron varieties grown by Costa Farms include P. hederaceum ‘Brasil,’ P. tortum, P. ‘Pink Princess’ and P. ‘Golden Crocodile.’

If you want to start growing philodendrons but you’re not able to augment the growing conditions in your home, Hancock recommends P. hederaceum selections such as ‘Brasil.’ Launched in 2000, this classic variety, whose vining habit makes it an ideal hanging plant, has heart-shaped, dark-green leaves and a streak of yellow variegation going up the center.

For first-timers that don’t want to deal with a climbing or trailing plant, Hancock suggests P. ‘Birkin,’ a popular self-heading variety, meaning that the plant stands upright and the leaves are closely spaced so you can’t see the stems.

P. tortum is one of Hancock’s current favorites.

“This one was recently commercialized, so it’s just starting to become readily available to the home gardener and retail pricing of it is about a third of what it was a couple of years ago,” he says. “It’s a distinctive species with finely dissected leaves that are often compared to fern fronds. I’ve found it really forgiving if I forget to water, but it does like lots of light to look its best.”

Though P. ‘Pink Princess’ was introduced in the 1970s, Hancock says it wasn’t until the pandemic that this variety truly became popular.

“Unbelievably so! People were buying cuttings of this variety for crazy prices. Now that it’s in a lot of labs and growers big and small are able to buy plantlets, it’s become a lot more affordable,” he says. “It features dark-green, often purple-flushed leaves variegated with shades of pink that range from cotton candy to cerise.”

A climber, it likes lots of light and isn’t fussy about a missed watering as long as it doesn’t get too much.

Another variety new to commercialization through tissue-culture labs, P. ‘Golden Crocodile’ is a semi-climber that features long, toothed leaves in a dazzling shade of chartreuse, says Hancock.

“The new growth emerges a contrasting coppery color before lightening as it matures.”

A newer launch for Costa Farms, Hancock says he doesn’t have as much firsthand experience with it, but in the last few months he’s found it to be exceptionally tolerant in terms of watering.

Regarding light needs, “I haven’t pushed this one with low light conditions yet, but my guess is you’ll see the color fade.”

Philodendron squamiferum. Credit: Costa Farms

At the Moss & Spade plant shop in Oakland, CA, owner Jessica Wicha has created a veritable jungle, with up to 50 varieties of philodendrons dominating this verdant interior greenscape.

A pink and playful neon sign on the backmost wall spells out “Great things grow here.” Wicha is constantly in awe of the lush, tropical vibe philodendrons bring to any room and says their combination of ease, beauty and variety makes them attractive to plant parents of all levels.

“You’ve got all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors to choose from, and the best part is they can be trained to grow in various ways – hanging, climbing, or spreading, adding versatility to home décor.”

From floor to ceiling, Wicha’s impeccable displays convey this design versatility. Dense, trailing philodendrons cascade from sturdy metal railings overhead while down below, their cousins are decked out in colorful cachepots and other decorative containers to showcase their stand-alone magnificence.

Like Hancock, Wicha is often asked about how to care for philodendrons, and it’s usually about how much water and light, and why are the leaves yellowing.

“These plants will forgive you if you don’t always remember to water. A good rule of thumb is to wait until the soil is dry before watering again, and always use pots with drainage holes to avoid waterlogging,” she says.

And by all means, try not to overwater them. “Too much water and their roots might rot.”

As for light, “they can tolerate a range of light, but they really prefer bright spots without direct sun. Too little light can make them a bit leggy and sad-looking,” says Wicha. “If your place isn’t super bright, don’t worry. Philodendrons can handle lower light. Just avoid placing them in really dark locations.”

Yellow leaves? “Could be a few reasons for this, but overwatering is a common factor.”

Wicha also recommends that if the air inside your home is dry, try misting your plant or run a small humidifier around your plants to help replicate the moist conditions of their native habitat.

“These plants originate from tropical regions, like the rainforests in South America,” says Wicha. “That’s a big clue about what they like. Thinking about where they come from really helps in understanding how to keep them happy and healthy. If you know their roots–pun intended!–you’re better equipped to give them what they need.”

Try these easy-grow varieties …

Credit: Costa Farms

P. ‘Birkin’: Thick green leaves with showy white or yellow streaks. Compact, upright habit and slow growing.

Credit: Costa Farms

P. hederaceum: Heart-shaped foliage, excellent hanging plant, tolerates a range of lighting conditions and irregular watering.

Credit: Costa Farms

P. hederaceum ‘Brasil’: Showy variegated leaves, super resilient, handles occasional neglect like a champ.

Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

P. xanadu: Large, multi-lobed leaves and bushy, clumping growth habit. Responds well to medium to low light and semi-occasional watering.

Credit: Costa Farms

P. selloum: Lobed leaves with deep splits equal instant tropical effect. Common in Bay Area landscapes. Give ’em space: selloums grow fast and can reach up to 12 feet tall and 15 feet wide.

Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

P. ‘Burle Marx’: An easy-care philo from Brazil with narrow, heart-shaped leaves in light to dark green. Reaches two feet high and two to four feet wide.

For something more unusual

Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

P. billietiae: Unique foliage is long, tapered, and striking—I can’t stop looking at it. Thrives best with high humidity.

Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

P. brandtianum: Olive-colored leaves with silver markings, bushy growth habit. Easy cloche or terrarium plant.

Credit: Costa Farms

P. grazielae: Medium green, glossy, heart-shaped leaves. Grow on a saturated moss pole or board so aerial roots can attach and climb.

Credit: Costa Farms

P. tortum: A distinctive species with finely dissected leaves that resemble fern fronds. Rather forgiving if you forget to water it, says Hancock. 

PLEASE NOTE

>  Toxic to pets and humans if ingested.

>  Susceptible to pests like aphids, mealybugs, scales, and spider mites.

>  Contact with any parts of the plant can cause skin irritation.

A cutting of Philodendron hederaceum. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon
Philodendron 'White Knight'. Credit: Paul Lee Cannon

HOW TO GROW

Light: Bright, indirect, like the dappled light under a tree canopy. I grow mine in west-facing windows, with sheer curtains to diffuse the light, and they’re doing great. If your space lacks sufficient light, consider using a simple LED lamp or inexpensive grow bulbs.

Water: Are the top two inches of soil dry to the touch? Time to grab your watering can. Rainwater or distilled water are ideal, or boiled tap water cooled to room temp. 

Soil: Make sure it drains well. I take standard potting soil and mix in equal parts perlite and orchid bark. Doing this by hand feels really gratifying!  

Temperature: Grow philos in the warmest space in your home. They prefer between 65-85 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity of at least 60 percent.

This article was sponsored by:

A POTHOS & PHILO WALK INTO A BAR …

How to tell these two lookalikes apart.

Genus: Philodendron=Philodendron, Pothos=Epipremnum

Leaves: Philodendron=thinner, heart-shaped, softly textured; Pothos=thicker, waxier

Aerial Roots: Philodendron= several small aerial roots per node; Pothos=one large aerial root per node

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