In this in-depth look at the important houseplant, Philodendron, we started in an earlier blog post by learning more about their amazing biology – where they come from, and where and how they grow in their natural home. In another blog post you can learn the ins and outs of growing them to perfection – it isn’t difficult, but there are some ‘secrets’. Now we are going to explore the enormous range of these plants, and which ones make the best houseplants. Let’s get started. . .
Philodendrons are often divided into two groups, but this has led to some confusion. One group are climbing plants, with long, thin stems that don’t stand up, but need something to climb up – in the jungle it would of course be a tree.
The second group are called non-climbing plants, often called ‘self-heading’ by nurseries, or ‘arborescent’ (tree-like). These plants have stems that are thick and strong enough to hold the leaves up. However, all these plants will in time become climbing, even the popular Split-leaf Philodendron. It is just that when young those that have sturdy stems are able to stand upright, and don’t flop over the side of the pot. In time they will all sprawl or climb, depending on how you treat them.
You don’t have to spend long looking for information on Philodendrons, or other houseplants to become confused. Interest in these plants is relatively new, so the level of accuracy, particularly about their names, is very poor, compared to our knowledge of garden plants. At the Tree Center we are committed to giving you the most accurate and correct information available, on culture and on names. Because there are so many Philodendrons, the level of confusion and error is high, so we have worked hard, using our professional training and experience, to sort things out, giving you the most currently correct names, and clearing up a lot of the confusion out there.
In this blog we are looking only at species of Philodendrons, and some of their varieties. In the next, and final, post we will look at some of the most popular hybrids, and take about variation and hybridization of these fascinating plants.
Classic Trailing or Climbing Philodendrons
Heart-leaf Philodendron – Philodendron hederaceum var. oxycardium
Certainly one of the best known and easiest of all houseplants, the Heart-leaf Philodendron, also known as the sweetheart vine, is a trailing plan from the get-go. The thin stems carry attractive small leaves that really are shaped like hearts, glossy and a warm mid-green. This super-tough plant will survive in almost any conditions, and of course thrive on love. Just be careful that you don’t drown it with love by overwatering – like all Philodendrons it prefers soil that is well-drained and becomes a little dry between each watering. This versatile plant can be grown as a hanging basket, or as a taller plant growing up canes or a moss pole. It can also be trained up strings to frame a window – what you do with it is only limited by your imagination. You will see this plant listed with several names, including P. scandens, but the name shown is the correct and currently accepted one.
For a plant that has been so popular for so long, it is surprising that there aren’t more special varieties. There is some, though, including an outstanding variation, called ‘Brasil’ (or, incorrectly, Brazil). This beauty has an irregular gold stripe down the center of each leaf, which varies in width. Every leaf is different in subtle or obvious ways, with each one a unique creation, anything from pure green to pure gold, with everything in between.
Another interesting variation of the sweetheart plant is the Velvet-leaf Philodendron. Originally named as a species, and called Philodendron micans, the plant is simply a variation, with soft, dark-green velvety leaves, originally found
growing in a greenhouse in Berlin. So it never was a wild plant, and is today recognized as simply a variety – perhaps it could be called ‘Micans’.
Brandt’s Philodendron – Philodendron brandtianum
A popular houseplant variety – and no wonder. The young leaves are beautifully marked in gray, with green veins, making a handsome specimen worth a place in every houseplant collection. Climbing or trailing, it a species that is sure to deliver the goods. This species develops much larger adult leaves, without markings, but this only happens when the plant is very large (about 30 feet long!), so houseplants stay decorative indefinitely. This plant has also been sold under the incorrect name of Philodendron variifolium.
Glory Philodendron – Philodendron gloriosum
If you like houseplants with big leaves (and have the room to grow them), then this one is for you. Wild plants can have leaves 36 inches across, but in most situations half that (15 to 18 inches) would show you are a terrific grower. It doesn’t have long climbing stems, so its great for a floor or low-table specimen. The silver veins show off the heart-shaped leaves perfectly. Grows best in warm locations and with bright light, just short of direct sunlight.
Silver Sword Philodendron – Philodendron hastatum
This striking plant is renowned for its large, pointed leaves, named after a ‘hast’, a medieval weapon of a pole with a vicious iron spear and hooks on the end. Young leaves have a silvery sheen, with older leaves becoming darker green. Younger plants – those available to buy – are compact with a very short stem. As they mature they begin to become more climbing, and can be grown on a moss pole or log. Some people believe that the name of this plant has been changed to P. domesticum, but that is not true. P. domesticum is a different, but similar-looking, species.
Oak-leaf Philodendron – Philodendron pedatum
This fascinating plant has deeply-lobed leaves that look a lot like those of an oak tree, especially when the plant is young. Juvenile leaves become larger and more deeply divided as the plant grows. The leaves are spaced 4 to 6 inches apart on climbing stems.
Ecuador Philodendron – Philodendron verrucosum
With knock-out leaves and a fabulous form, this is a climbing or trailing plant that develops a relatively short stem. The large leaves grow up with long stalks, and it these the amazing leaves that are the reason to grow it. They are large ovals that can be a foot or more in length, with a dramatic heart shape. The edges are wavy and the prominent veins are silvery to white. The underside of the leaf is pink or red. This plant is very variable, and there are lots of plants our there that have stronger red undersides, darker green leaves, more pronounced veins, and so on. In a way it doesn’t really matter, they are all the same plant, and they are all dramatic and beautiful.
This is not a very easy plant to grow, but with attention you can be proud you did a great job. It prefers lower temperatures, and it is perfectly happy at 60 degrees. Keep it away from all direct sun, and be sure to use the well-drained soil and careful watering described in the post linked earlier, on growing Philodendrons. If it loves you it will grow fast, and a moss pole is ideal for showing it off.
Species Usually Treated as Non-Climbing
Split-leaf Philodendron – Thaumatophyllum bipinnatifidum
This classic plant is widely grown in warmer areas as an outdoor landscape plant. It is usually considered as a non-climbing variety, but as you can see here, this is not completely true. Outdoors, in the ground it can become very large, and cover big areas in beds, but as it houseplant it stays relatively small for many years. It is a good-sized plant suitable for filling a larger space, perhaps in the corner of a room. The distinctive leaves are deeply divided with parallel slots into many long, narrow lobes. A tough and reliable plant indoors, the great value of this plant is its ability to grow everywhere from dark corners to full sun.
There is a lot of variation in the lobes, from broad and shallow to very deep and narrow. Plants in Europe and the UK tend to have broader lobes, and for many years were called Philodendron bipinnatifidum. There the plant is commonly called horsehead philodendron. In America, plants with long, narrow lobes are much more common, and often called Philodendron selloum. In fact these plants are nothing more than leaf variations of the same species, which since 2018 has been re-classified as Thaumatophyllum bipinnatifidum. It will be probably be many years before growers and gardeners start calling it something other than “Philodendron”.
Xanadu Philodendron – Thaumatophyllum xanadu
Similar to the split-leaf philodendron, but smaller, this plant is a great variety to choose if you don’t have the room for its big cousins. It is only 2 to 3 feet tall, and perhaps 4 feet wide, even after several years, and it has very precise divisions and glossy leaves. Younger plants may have more rounded, irregular leaves.
This plant has a very complex naming history that would take a whole post to explain. It took a long time before someone realized this was a distinct species, and not just a form of T. bipinnatifidum. For a while it was called ‘Xanadu’.then that name was trademarked. In 1988 it was patented as ‘Winterbourn’, but today all those things have expired, leaving it as a natural species with a cool name for lovers of the poet Coleridge.
Bird’s Nest Philodendron – Philodendron wendlandii
This rare plant is the only other Philodendron that can be considered ‘non-climbing’. It forms a dense clump of long, narrow leaves from a central crown, and is an impressive specimen when well-developed. It doesn’t normally show any tendency to climb. As you can see, if you should be lucky enough to have this plant flower, it has one of the most attractive blooms of all Philodendrons.