Anthuriums tend to lose their lower leaves and become leggy over time. Photo: Rachel Bernier
Question: I have had an anthurium for 4 years now and it grows and flowers well, but it’s become very spindly, with a lot of bare stem at the base, and it won’t even stand up on its own now unless stake it. I know I should repot it, but when I do so, can I bury part of the bare stem in potting soil?
The anthurium (Anthurium andraeanum and its hybrids), commonly called flamingo flower or painter’s palette, is a popular houseplant, one capable of blooming all year long. It bears an inflorescence in the shape of a waxy, leathery, heart-shaped bract called a spathe that can be red, pink, white, purple, green or bicolor with a narrow yellow to cream spadix (spike) at the top. Its leaves are also heart-shaped. It’s the most popular of some 1000 species of anthurium, all native to the New World tropics.
Answer: Yes, lowering the plant in its new pot to hide its bare stem is exactly what you should do.
In many ways, the anthurium is like a phalaenopsis orchid, producing similar thick aerial roots on a stem that gradually lengthens over time even as the lower leaves slowly die and are removed, turning what originally was a compact, dense plant into something quite ungainly and even floppy. However, if you cover the bare stem with soil as you repot, not only will the plant appear shorter and denser and therefore more attractive, but the buried roots will start to lengthen and give renewed vigor to the plant.
Plus, after 4 years, the originally potting soil has probably become compact and contaminated with mineral salts, something anthuriums highly dislike. So, I’d say it is indeed high time to repot pot your specimen, lowering it in its pot as you do so.
First, you can repot an anthurium at any season, but you’ll find it recuperates best if you do so sometime from early spring to midsummer, when it’s naturally growing most vigorously.
Start by assembling the materials.
You can use ordinary potting soil, but then, considering the anthurium grows like an orchid, it will actually prefer something lighter and better aerated, like an orchid mix or a 50/50 blend of orchid mix and houseplant mix. That will help replicate the growing conditions of this plant which grows as an epiphyte (on tree branches) in the wild.
You’ll also need a pot with drainage holes, likely 2 to 4 inches (5 to 10 cm) larger than the original pot.
Also, clean the plant up a bit beforehand, removing dead and yellowing leaves and faded flowers. Also, remove the stipules from the stem: those little brown leaflike growths that originally serve to protect the leaves when they’re young and tender, but then just seem to dry out and hang on for ever, making your plant look messy. Given that they no longer serve any purpose, removing them is fully justified.
Finally, water your anthurium well a few hours before potting so the roots will be well-moistened, lessening transplant shock.
Doing the Deed
Start by moistening the growing mix, pouring some into a pail or bowl and adding tepid water, then mixing well. It doesn’t have to be soaking wet, just humid.
Now, turn the pot upside down, and, holding the base of the plant between your fingers, tap on the bottom of the pot with the palm of your hand. Give it a fairly hard knock: you want the root ball to come loose. This is usually all it takes and you can simply slip the pot right off with no effort.
You’ll probably find your plant is rootbound, with thick roots wrapping all around the soil. This is typical anthurium behavior. If so, cut back the really long ones and pull on the others to spread them out and. Remove as much of the old soil as possible, working your fingers in and among the roots, and also using pruning shears to remove any dead or rotten roots.
It’s also very likely that the plant has produced such a mass of roots, far more than it could ever logically use, that it will be difficult to fit it back into a pot! If so, cut well back on the rootball, removing up to one third of the roots, especially those at the bottom of the rootball. This won’t harm the plant, but instead will stimulate a stronger recovery.
If there is more than one plant in the pot (often the case), you can take advantage of repotting to divide your plant. Pull a little on the plants to separate them and untangle their roots, quite simply. Again, don’t worry if you have to cut off some roots to do so.
At this point, the old soil should mostly be gone and you’ll have an essentially bare-root plant ready to pot up.
Add a little potting mix to the bottom of the new pot, then place the plant on it, setting it lower than it was originally so that its bare stem will be covered. Sometimes you have to push it down and hold it or it will practically spring out of its pot!
As you hold the plant centered and at the desired depth, add potting mix, pushing it among the roots with a stake, a pencil or your fingers. Really work the mix in around the roots: you’ll want the plant to settle solidly into its new environment: if it wobbles, add more mix and work it in more deeply.
Finally, water well, then place the plant in the shade for a few days until it recovers from the shock, then move it back to its preferred environment, probably in fairly good light, but without too much direct sun.
If Your Plant Is Really Leggy, Take Cuttings
Some anthuriums grow so tall, with such a length of bare stem—4, 6 or even 8 inches (10, 15, 20 cm) or more!—that it simply wouldn’t be feasible to cover all that bare stem as you repot, at least, not without using a really deep pot. In such a case, it makes more sense to cut off and root the top of the plant rather than simply repotting it.
Fortunately, anthuriums are very easy to grow from stem cuttings.
To do so, cut the stem so the cutting will have about 3 to 6 inches (8 to 15 cm) of bare stem. Again, clean the cutting up, removing the stipules, older or yellowing leaves and also all the flowers (don’t worry: more will show up soon enough!) Use the same extra light potting mix suggested for adult plants: orchid mix or half orchid mix/half houseplant soil.
Fill a clean pot about the size of the original one with the pre-moistened mix to 1 inch (2.5 cm) of the upper pot edge and make a hole in the center with a stick or pencil. Slide the cutting into the hole (no rooting hormone is required) and tamp the mix down a little to keep it upright. Water well.
Cover the pot with a clear plastic dome or bag to maintain high humidity and move it to a warm, lightly lit spot, but with no direct sun. When you see new leaves appear, that’s a sign that the cutting has taken root and you can remove its covering and move it to its regular home.
But that’s not all.
Don’t throw away the base of the plant after you chop the top off, but instead repot it according to the method described above. After a few weeks, a new stem will appear just below where the old one was cut back and soon the plant will grow back completely. It will probably be back in bloom in about 6 months.
So, you now have two anthuriums instead than one! Someone’s going to have a nice homegrown gift next Christmas!
In the future, don’t let your anthurium get to this extreme. Make a habit of repotting your every 2 years or so, when the bare stem is still relatively short and easy to bury and before the soil has time to become contaminated. That way your anthurium will always be beautiful!