One of the most common houseplants in America and one of the most abused is the Philodendron. Found in homes and offices across the country, it is often seen as a straggly 15 foot vine with a few pale, heart shaped leaves near the end. But a properly grown and trained Heart Leaved Philodendron is very attractive and it takes just a little care to make it look nice.
Often seen in offices and mall courtyards are the Tree Philodendron and a cousin, known as the Split Leaf Philodendron. They are sometimes kept in the home if the homeowner has lots of room. These can be extremely handsome plants if grown correctly.
The philodendrons come from the humid tropical rainforests of South America and the West Indies. There are about 200 species but only a few are grown as houseplants. The Tree Philodendron, (P. bipinnatifidum), can be grown in the ground as a landscape plant in zones 9 and above.
Heart Leaved Philodendrons, (P. scandens) have, you guessed it, heart shaped leaves on a vine-like stem. The leaves are bronze when young and mature to dark glossy green. There are a few variegated varieties on the market, with silver and white streaking. The vines of this philodendron can grow to incredible lengths, but they are better looking when they are either trained to a form or kept pinched to make the plant put out more stems and look fuller.
Tree Philodendrons don't really resemble a tree. They have a thick reclining stem from which huge 3 foot or longer leaves on long stalks pop up. The stems are sometimes propped up or staked, but left alone the plant will become about 6 foot high and 8 or more foot wide. The leaves of the Tree Philodendron have deep irregular splits in them.
Tree Philodendrons are easily confused with another plant called the Split Leaf Philodendron, (Monstera deliciosa). It is also called the Swiss Cheese plant. It looks and acts very much like the tree philodendrons but the huge leaves have actual holes in them.
There are a few other philodendrons sometimes seen in stores and nurseries. Elephant's Ear Philodendron (P. domesticum) has long, arrow shaped leaves that can grow to 2 foot long. There are several varieties of the Red Leaved Philodendron, ( P. erubescens) offered, these vary in the shade of red from reddish green to almost black. The leaves are lobed and split and the plants grow like a Tree Philodendron.
Tree and Split Leaf philodendrons occasionally bloom. The flower is a large spathe shape, like a large calla lily. It ranges in color from greenish white to reddish. Some claim the flowers are mildly fragrant although I have never noticed a scent. The flowers can become a cluster of reddish fruits on the end of a thick stem.
Philodendrons make excellent houseplants because they thrive on low light and enjoy the same room temperatures that we do. Indoors they appreciate bright light, but prefer not to be grown in a sunny south or west window. Move them a few feet away from a south or west window. North and east windows are usually fine. If the room lighting is good philodendrons will do well on artificial light alone.
Philodendrons appreciate a light potting soil full of organic matter. Keep the soil moist but don't let the pot become too wet, it should always drain well. Humidity helps keep philodendron lush and healthy. They would love to live in the bathroom or above the kitchen sink. Sitting the pot on a tray of water with rocks or marble to raise the pot bottom above the water helps with humidity.
Heart Leaf philodendrons don't need huge pots. But they do need someone to monitor the condition of the soil in the pot. If white or yellow deposits of mineral salts are seen on the top or the sides of pots, the plant should be transplanted into clean potting soil.
Heart Leaf philodendrons need to be trained on a trellis or form to keep them neat. When the plants are as long as you want, the tips of each stem should be pinched off. This makes them put out more leaves, side branches and more stems. This should be done on a fairly frequent basis. The pieces you pinch off may root in water or potting soil so you can share plants.
If the plant still seems to be spindly and the leaves are small and pale the light is probably too low. Move the plant closer to a window or closer to artificial light or increase the light.
The larger philodendrons will need large pots and the plants transplanted as they grow. They often develop roots on the surface of the pot and along the stem. These are normal and do not necessarily mean the plant needs to be re-potted. Philodendrons need to be repotted when they are top heavy and tip the pot over, when they dry out too quickly between watering, when salts build up and when roots have filled the pot.
All philodendrons should have dead leaves picked off and leaves cleaned and dusted from time to time. Fertilizer is generally not needed. If the plant is pale and slow growing, and the light seems good, then a little houseplant fertilizer may be used.
Philodendrons also need to be kept out of drafts and in temperatures between 55- 80 degrees.
The larger philodendrons can be grown in the shady garden in zones 9 and above. Early morning sun or dappled sunlight light will be tolerated but too much sun will kill them. If a frost kills the top growth they will usually re-grow from the roots. They can be planted in the ground or in large pots and lend a tropical look to the landscape.
In a good spot outside they can become quite large so leave plenty of room. Make sure they are watered when it is dry. Outside philodendrons may be fertilized twice a year with a general purpose slow release fertilizer.
Potted philodendrons of the larger types may be moved outside in the north and then inside before a frost. Put them in the shade and don't let them get too dry. Be prepared to have a much larger plant when you bring them indoors.
Philodendron is poisonous if eaten. Keep them away from children and pets and from livestock outside. The sap of philodendron irritates the skin of some people.
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