Heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum). Photo: www.crocus.co.uk
Which houseplant is the easiest of all to grow? Well, that’s debatable, but for my money, the winner could easily be the heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum). I can’t think of any other plant that has been so thoroughly tested under the most adverse of conditions. Even the worst black thumbs manage to keep it alive and, in fact, it often thrives in their care.
This aroid (member of the Araceae family) is widespread throughout the New World tropics. It was introduced to culture by Captain William Bligh (history buffs will remember him as a survivor of an infamous mutiny) who brought a specimen from the Caribbean to Kew Gardens in London in 1793. But it was in 1936 that the heartleaf philodendron was introduced to the general public when the Woolworth’s stores started selling this philodendron at 5¢ apiece, thus launching the very first houseplant craze.
If this plant’s botanical name (P. hederaceum) seems unfamiliar, that’s because there has been a lot of confusion about its true name over the years. For a long time, it was sold under names like P. oxycardium, P. scandens, P. cordatum or P. micans. However, P. hederaceum was the first valid name published for this variable plant, way back in 1829, and therefore has priority. This situation was officially confirmed in 2012, so … correct your plant labels!
The heartleaf philodendron is a climbing plant in nature: a liana if you prefer. Its long stems carry, at each node, one dark green heart-shaped leaf and several small adhesive aerial roots that allow the plant to climb up tree trunks. And that explains its botanical name. Philo means which love while dendron means tree; thus the name means tree-lover. Even its epithet is appropriate: hederaceum means “ivy,” again a reference to its climbing nature.
In our homes, where trees are scarce, the heartleaf philodendron s usually grown in hanging baskets where it trails gracefully downwards, sometimes to the floor. If you place your heartleaf philodendron near a wall, though, it will eventually cling to it thanks to its aerial roots and will start to clamber up to the ceiling. (Yes, it will literally climb walls if you let it!)
If you let your philodendron trail, however, you’ll notice an interesting phenomenon: its leaves will become smaller and smaller. If you allow it to climb (for example, you can let it root onto a moss stake), the leaves will get bigger.
That’s also what happens in the wild. In fact, fully mature leaves are huge: by the time the liana has reached the top of its tree host, they sometimes measure 20 inches (50 cm) long and 14 inches (35 cm) wide! It’s only then that the heartleaf philodendron blooms, with greenish inflorescences that resemble small jack-in-the-pulpit blooms (Arisaema triphyllum). As far as I know, lacking 100 foot (30 m) trees to climb, heartleaf philodendrons never bloom indoors.
Popular for Two Reasons
The heartleaf philodendron is certainly a fairly attractive houseplant, but there are many prettier ones. Why then was this plant for many years the most popular houseplant in the world and why does it still remain one of the mostly widely grown? There are really two reasons:
First, the heartleaf philodendron is incredibly easy to grow. Place it in the shade or in the sun, water it a lot or almost never, fertilize a lot or not at all … and it keeps on growing. In two words, it’s nearly indestructible. I only know of two ways to kill one: put it outside in the winter in a cold climate (being a plant of tropical origin, it wont’t tolerate cold) or cook it in the microwave.
The other reason is that it’s so easy to multiply. Remove any stem section with at least 2 nodes (points where leaves were attached) and insert the cut end into moist potting soil. In less than a month, it’ll be rooted and growing. So, the philodendron is incredibly easy to share with friends and relatives.
Treat It Well
Although the heartleaf philodendron does tolerate shade and irregular watering, that’s not what it likes. It will, in fact, grow much better under good lighting—at least a few hours of indirect sunlight per day—and with regular, thorough waterings when its soil feels dry to touch. Maintain normal indoor temperatures at all times: 60–75 °F (16–24 °C). And even if it tolerates the low humidity that reigns in most homes during the winter, it will be much more attractive when if you can supply it with an atmospheric humidity of 50% or more.
Any potting soil for houseplants will suit it perfectly, but if you want to, you could also grow it in an orchid mix. As with many indoor plants, repotting it into fresh growing mix every 3 to 4 years will help maintain healthy growth.
Fertilizer is optional. If you fertilize it (use the fertilizer of your choice at a dilute rate during its spring to early fall growing season), it will simply grow faster. If you want to slow its growth down, stop fertilizing it.
Pinch or prune your philodendron occasionally to keep it from becoming straggly. If it becomes overgrown, don’t hesitate to cut it back severely: it will simply resprout from the base. If you never pinch or prune it, the stems will simply get longer and longer and longer. A specimen grown in Amhurst, Massachusetts, USA, was once featured in the Guinness book of world records. It was 1,114 feet (339.55 m) long after 33 years, running many times around the room where it was grown … but such a specimen won’t be very attractive: old leaves eventually drop off, leaving a long, bare stem with leaves only near the tip, which is not very stylish. It’s better to prune it regularly, keeping the plant shorter, denser and prettier.
In exchange for proper maintenance, the heartleaf philodendron does an excellent job of cleaning the air of its impurities and will actually, like a living vacuum, filter dust out of the air.
Poisonous or Not?
You’ll often see the heartleaf philodendron listed as a poisonous plant, so classified because plants of the Araceae family all contain various levels of oxalic acid which can be toxic at high doses. However, this toxicity has been called into doubt by toxicologists. No cases of poisoning are known in humans and it would appear that claim it is toxic to cats has either been exaggerated or misrepresented. Apparently (no, I did not try it myself!), its taste is so unpleasant that the victim spits it out rather than swallowing it, avoiding any poisoning. Nevertheless, it would still be wise to keep this plant out of reach of children and pets.
The heartleaf philodendron is very variable in nature and has also given, through mutation, several horticultural forms.
P. hederaceum oxycardium is the form usually grown, with dark green heart-shaped leaves. Oddly, this form can be hard to find in garden centers: it’s simply so long-lived in homes and so easily shared that there no longer much of a market for it.
P. hederaceum ‘Brasil’ has an irregular yellow blotch in the center of a dark green leaf. It’s currently very popular.
P. hederaceum ‘Micans’ (P. micans) is a juvenile form with leaves that are velvety on top, and reddish below. If it’s grown for a long time, it will lose its juvenile color to become entirely green. To maintain its juvenile appearance, cut it back from time to time.
P. hederaceum ‘Aureum’ produces chartreuse-yellow leaves and stems, eventually turning lime green. New leaves are often orange.
P. hederaceum ‘Variegatum’ offers leaves streaked with cream. For best variegation, grow it on the cool side.
Not to Be Confused With…
Note that the heartleaf philodendron is often mistaken for a rather distant relative, also a popular houseplant: the pothos (Epipremnum aureum), a liana native to French Polynesia. Pothos leaves are thicker, with less distinctly heart-shaped leaves and thicker stems and petioles. Its leaves are often streaked with yellow or white. The two may seem somewhat similar in photos, but when you place them side-by-side, they are quite different.
By growing a heartleaf philodendron, you’re perpetuating a nearly century-old tradition. Share a cutting of yours with a friend today!