The schefflera or common schefflera, now Heptapleurum actinophyllum, was until recently known to plant hobbyists as Schefflera actinophylla. It’s a popular indoor tree in temperate climates. You see it in homes, but also offices, shopping centers, places of worship and hospitals. And it’s equally as a popular outdoor tree in tropical gardens. Although native to northern Australia, New Guinea and Indonesia, it now grows throughout the tropical world. In fact, it has escaped culture to become an invasive weed tree in some places.
Do we really have to go there? Well, I’m afraid we do.
Few genera have had such a turbulent taxonomic history as the genus Schefflera. A member of the ivy family, the Araliaceae, the once 700 some odd species of Schefflera has been grouped together and broken up then regrouped several times into up to 30 different genera.
There are now 5 different clades, all geographically isolated yet sharing similar traits, that contain several more closely related genera. Among the “new names” (many are actually old names that have been revived) are Agalma, Brassaia, Heptapleurum, Didymopanax, Dizygotheca, Panax, Paratropia, Sciadophyllum and Tupidanthus. Currently, only 8 species native to the Pacific islands remain in the once-vast genus Schefflera. And the common schefflera, the subject of this article, now Heptapleurum actinophyllum, is not one of them. So, do get out your pen and change your labels.
It also went under the name Brassaia actinophylla for a while. You can cross that one off too!
You may recognize the schefflera from its compound leaves shaped like the spokes of an umbrella. That’s also the origin of the name actinophylla, as it means “with radiating leaves.”
Its previous botanical name and now current common name, Schefflera, honors the 18th-century Prussian botanist Johann Peter Ernst von Scheffler.
Or maybe for you it’s not just a schefflera, but a common schefflera, an Australia schefflera, a Queensland schefflera or an octopus tree, among its numerous other common names.
As for the name Heptapleurum, it comes from its flowers, not its leaves. Arching racemes up to 6.5 ft (2 m) long, made up of up to 1,000 small red flowers, appear early in the growing season. The riblike appearance of the blooms, plus the fact that there tends to be 7 branches per raceme (well, someone seems to have thought there were seven of them!), led to the name Heptapleurum, which means 7 ribs. And the long, outward-stretching racemes also lead to the common name “octopus tree.” But don’t octopuses have 8 tentacles, not 7?
At any rate, don’t expect to be enjoying these fantastic flowers in the calm of your living room. Nor will you be slurping the apparently delicious dark purple fruit that follows. Though both birds and mammals, including fruit bats and tree kangaroos, adore them, only mature schefflera trees bloom. Indoor plants are never more than adolescents.
Yet, if the fruit is edible, the foliage clearly isn’t. It is in fact slightly toxic, enough to possibly serious harm a young child or a small pet if they consume enough. It can cause vomiting, kidney problems, tremors, and heart and respiratory problems. And can also cause oral irritation, such as difficulty swallowing, drooling, and burning of the mouth, lips, and tongue. You can touch your schefflera, even stroke it and caress it; just don’t eat it.
The schefflera often grows as a “hemi-epiphyte” in the wild. Seeds germinate on trees branches, so the young plant starts out its life as an epiphyte, much like an orchid or bromeliad. That is, it sprouts and grows in the tree’s upper part, where there is abundant sunlight. However, it also begins to produce long roots. They slowly work their way down the host tree’s trunk. When they reach the ground, the schefflera forms a trunk of its own and frees itself from its host. Independence at last!
The schefflera is a true tree, with a grayish brown woody trunk that reaches up to 15 m (50 feet) in height in humid, tropical conditions outdoors. Indoors, it will readily reach the ceiling if allowed to do so, but can be cut back to a lower height as needed.
The schefflera is grown for its attractive shiny green palmately compound leaves. The number of leaflets per leaf varies from 3 to 5 on seedlings to 7 or occasionally 9 on average size indoor plants. Indoors, leaves are rarely much more than 1 foot (30 cm) in diameter. On large outdoor specimens, where the sunlight is much more intense, there can be up to 16 leaflets and the leaves are much larger, up to 60 cm (2 feet) in diameter.
The glossy leaves are narrowly oblong with a smooth edge, although younger leaves are sometimes toothed. There is always a point at the tip of the leaf. Called a drip tip, it’s common on plants growing in rainforests, as it helps evacuate excess rainwater.
The young plants you often see in garden centers in 4-inch (10-cm) pots are typically grown from seed. They often show up as from five to a dozen plantlets stuffed into a single pot and sold as an attractive cluster of green foliage. These clumps tend to soon collapse under home conditions. There’s no room in such a small pot for such a mass of young seedlings! Either they all fail or one or two more dominant seedlings crowd out the others and take over. Read more about this recent and unfortunate phenomenon and what to do about it here: Keeping Houseplant Clumps Alive.
As any surviving young plants grow, they form a green trunk dotted with white lenticels and well-marked leaf nodes. Only as the plant grows does the lower part become woody and develop light brown bark.
Young plants rarely branch. For the first few decades of their life, they concentrate their energy in reaching great heights. In their native rainforest, this is a smart move. Their goal is to push through the tree canopy into the sun. So, they attempt to grow straight up. Older specimens outdoors branch readily in their upper parts when they have reached the light. It works perfectly!
This strategy is not such a good idea indoors. They’ll be more likely to encounter a ceiling than reach the sky. So, indoors, you’ll likely have to pinch or prune them to encourage branching … but more on that below.
You notice that there are really two varieties of common schefflera frequently sold in garden centers. The standard species, H. actinophyllum, plus one very popular cultivar, ‘Amate’
So, the first is the species itself, H. actinophyllum, grown from seed. It can be a individual plant, if the dealer wants to supply something long lasting. However, often these days you instead see clumps of seedlings. In the home, either separate the seedlings or selectively remove the extras. Remember that your schefflera, although it may look small now, will one day be a big plant. It will do best when grown on its own, eventually in a large pot.
This “wild” form has large, mid-green leaves. Once in a larger pot, it will grow slowly but surely, with each successive leaf increasing in size and number of leaflets until it reaches 7 or even 9 very large ones. By then, it will already be quite an interesting indoor tree albeit still a fairly small one.
The other common choice is H. actinophyllum ‘Amate’. This variety appeared in tissue culture in the 1980s and showed improved disease and insect resistance. In particular, it has very lustrous dark green leaves with a mirrorlike shine that makes them look waxed. You certainly don’t need any kind of leaf shine product with this one!
This appearance seemed to please both nurseries and consumers, as it rapidly took over the market. And it remains highly popular to this day. If you find a single-trunked green-leaved common schefflera in a pot, it’s almost certainly ‘Amate’. Yes, it’s that common!
‘Amate’ is also a somewhat smaller plant than the species, with smaller leaves, shorter petioles and more compact leaf nodes (the leaves grow more closely together). As a result, it doesn’t take over your living room quite as quickly.
Recently, a golden leaf variety, H. actinophyllum ‘Amate Soleil’ has become more widely available. This mutation of ‘Amate’ has similar shiny leaves of the same dimensions, but they’re a bright yellow-green color. Charming! And it seems to grow quite quickly as well.
The most original H. actinophyllum is certainly ‘Nova’, as the green leaflets are deeply cut, rather like oak leaves. So, you would be excused for not realizing it’s a schefflera. It can be hard to find, though, but check around. It’s not totally unavailable!
Of course, ‘Renegade’, yet another mutation of ‘Amate’, is certainly strange enough too. It produces leaves with only a short petiole, so the leaflets appear to grow directly from the trunk, sometimes flaring out like a fan. As a result, as it grows, ‘Renegade’ forms a column rather than a tree-like outline.
There are a few variegated cultivars as well. You might see a plant labeled H. actinophyllum ‘Variegatum’ … but that doesn’t mean much. It’s a sort of nom de plume given to any unknown variegate. H. actinophyllum ‘Dazzle’ is another variegated cultivar with large leaves and creamy-yellow markings on a plant with a columnar habit. There are others, but they’re all rare, usually the prized possession of collectors who have no intention of sharing. Most of the variegated scheffleras you see and can actually buy belong to a different species, H. arboricola (described next), not to H. actinophyllum.
The “Other Schefflera”
Of course, the schefflera is not the only Heptapleurum on the market. The dwarf schefflera (Heptapleurum arboricola, formerly Schefflera arboricola) is even more popular than the standard schefflera, I think.
Certainly, there are many more varieties to choose from, as, besides the straight all-green species, there are many variegated cultivars, like ‘Green Gold’, ‘Gold Capella’, ’Janine’, ‘Trinette’ and ‘Luseanne’ and others with cut leaflets, like ‘Maggie’.
It’s an epiphytic shrub, growing way up in treetops in Asia in the wild. It has much smaller, less glossy leaves than the standard schefflera. They’re usually no more than 4 inch/10 cm in diameter. Also, its leaf tips are rounded (as mentioned, those of H. actinophyllum end in a narrow point: a drip tip). It doesn’t have the stiffly upright trunk of H. actinophyllum, either, but rather its stem (about pencil thick, you wouldn’t really call it a trunk) tends to grow at an angle. A little pinching and pruning and replanting is usually needed to make it symmetrical.
Also, it will bloom indoors, although not that readily. Mostly on plants a few years old.
And then there are all the other other scheffleras! There are literally hundreds of species once regrouped under the name Schefflera, many though now going under new names. Among them, you might find:
The hardy schefflera (H. delavayi, formerly S. delavayi) gets its name from its ability to survive colder winters than most. It’s a large evergreen shrub, hardy to USDA zones 7b to 10. Still, for most gardeners outside of the mildest temperate climates, it will have to overwinter indoors.
The false aralia, which I knew as Dizygotheca elegantissima back during the 1970s houseplant craze, became Schefflera elegantissima for a while, but is now Plerandra elegantissima. It looks nothing like a schefflera in its juvenile form. At that point, its palmately compound leaflets are very narrow, deep green above, purple below and toothed, with a pale center vein. It looks much more like our image of a schefflera when the plant reaches maturity. Then the leaflets become much wider, longer and greener.
Then there is the eight-leaf schefflera (H. heptaphyllum, syn. Schefflera octophylla) and the seven-finger schefflera (H. insularum, syn. Schefflera digitata): guess how many leaflets those have?
And I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the picture. There are well over 700 scheffleras belonging to various genera, any one of which might occasionally show up as a houseplant under the name “schefflera.”
This article is about growing scheffleras indoors, but two warnings about growing them outdoors for my readers in the tropics.
First, most (the hardy schefflera, H. delavayi, being the main exception) are strictly tropical plants, thus for hardiness zones 10 to 12. Only a few stray over the line into subtropical (zone 9) or temperate (zone 8) climates. So, most people will still have to grow them as houseplants.
Second, some scheffleras are proving to be invasive in tropical climates. That’s the case with both the schefflera (H. actinophyllum), invasive in southern Florida, among others, and the dwarf schefflera (H. arboricola). It’s so invasive in Hawaii, people take it for a native plant and call it the Hawaiian schefflera! The Global Compendium of Weeds classifies it as a weed. So, if you do plant these species outdoors, you may need to cut off any flowers stalks before seed is mature.
Caring for a Schefflera
Most people find the schefflera a moderately easy houseplant to grow. Certainly, it has no special needs that would make growing it complicated: just routine houseplant care. You only have to know that, even if you do prune it regularly, it does tend to become a true indoor tree. A small one won’t remain a desktop plant for long!
So, what do you need to know to successfully grown a schefflera?
Bright to medium light is fine. The schefflera will tolerate full sun, although you may need to acclimatize it first. Ignore labels that suggest it is a shade plant. It will hang on in shade for months, but it will not do well in shade.
An east window would be perfect. And a south or west window would be fine in fall and winter. You might want to draw a curtain between it and the blazing sun during the heat of the day in summer, though. Either that, or move your schefflera back from a hot window at that time.
If you put it outdoors for the summer, make sure you acclimatize it fully before setting it in full sun.
Finally, give your plant a weekly quarter turn in the same direction to maintain even growth.
Weak, floppy stems and pale growth are sure signs your plant is not getting the light it needs.
Water thoroughly, moistening the entire root ball, but only when the soil is dry to the touch. This might well be only once every 7 to 10 days or so, but … conditions vary! So, always test before you pour. In the winter, especially, overwatering can lead to rot. And those poor seedling scheffleras stuffed into small pots may need watering ever 2 to 3 days!
Average. The schefflera tolerates dry air, but that can lead to an increased risk of spider mites. Humid air (over 50% relative humidity) will give better growth and improves pest resistance. When the air is very dry, that is, relative humidity of 30% or less, consider using a humidifier to bring it up to a safer level. This is most likely to be a problem in the winter.
Fertilize young, growing plants lightly a few times a year during their spring and summer growing period. An all-purpose fertilize would work perfectly. Once plants reach their desired height, cutting back on fertilizer can help slow their growth.
Average indoor temperatures are fine at all times. Cooler temperatures in winter are acceptable. Still, try to keep this tropical plant above 55 °F (12 °C) at all times. Lower temperatures can cause leaf drop.
To encourage growth in younger plants, pot up every year or two into a slightly larger pot, preferably in spring or summer. To slow down a mature plant, leave it in the same pot for 3 to 5 years, but top-dress in the spring. That is, scrape off the top layer and replace it with fresh soil. That will help remove any mineral salt buildup. After that 4 or 5 years, do repot, changing the soil, but plant it back into a pot of the same size. That will all help slow it down.
Generic potting soil is just fine for this plant.
As mentioned above, the schefflera rarely branches on its own. Well, not for a long, long time. Left to its own devices, it will grow straight towards the ceiling on a thick, sturdy trunk. So pinch or prune off the tip of the plant to force it to respond. This will stimulate dormant buds found lower on the stem to start to grow.
Of course, if only one does, you still won’t have any branches: just a new replacement trunk. You therefore sometimes have to wait a few months for the new trunk to start to grow, then pinch again to stimulate branching.
If your plant is bigger than you want and your goal is to reduce its size, you can cut it well back, even down to near the base, and it will produce new growth.
Rinse the leaves in tepid water every few months to maintain their characteristic gloss. Rinsing also knocks off any spider mites that might be hanging out there.
Commercial nurseries grow scheffleras either from seed (to produce the species) or tissue culture (to propagate cultivars).
Honestly, most home gardeners buy scheffleras: they don’t usually start their own. But if you did, you’d be more likely to grow them from air layering or stem cuttings. Still, starting them from seed is also quite doable if you have access to viable seeds.
The best way is air layering, which has a much better success rate than cuttings. It involves wrapping the stem in a ball of moist moss and encouraging roots to grow into that. When that is done, you simply cut the now-rooted plant free and pot it up on its own. If you keep watering the base, it will then produce a new top as well.
You can read about how to do air layering step by step in the article Air Layering: Taking Plants Down a Notch.
The second choice is taking a stem cutting. The main problem with this is that scheffleras have a woody stem and, like many woody cuttings, they’re slow to root. If the cutting begins to dry out faster than it can make new roots, you’ll lose it. So, you need to stimulate fast rooting. And maintain extra high humidity during the rooting process. Here’s what to do.
- It’s best to take the cutting in the spring or early summer.
- Water the plant well the day before taking the cutting. It needs to be fully hydrated.
- Prepare a 6-inch (15-cm) pot of moist potting soil.
- Remove lowest 2 or 3 leaves from the cluster of leaves at the top of the plant to free up more bare stem.
- Cut off the top of the plant with a strong, sharp knife ou secateurs. You’ll need about 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) of bare stem.
- Using a cotton swab or an artist’s brush, apply rooting hormone to the wound on the cutting.
- Make a 2-to-3-inch (5-to-8 cm) deep hole in the potting mix in the center of the pot.
- Insert the cut end of the stem into the hole and fill in all around. You need to firm the soil down to hold the stem upright. A stem that moves is less likely to root!
- Cover with a large clear plastic bag and seal it to maintain high humidity.
- Place in a brightly lit spot at warm temperatures, but not in full sun.
- Rooting is slow and can take a month or more, but when a new leaf starts to appear from the top of the cutting, it’s a sign it has rooted.
- When the cutting has produced a 2nd new leaf, gradually remove the plastic bag.
- You now have well-rooted new schefflera from a cutting.
Do note that the base of the mother plant will send up a new stem if you keep taking care of it, so you now have two plants.
Schefflera seeds are not widely available, but still, if you look online, you ought to be able to find a source. And seed catalogs specializing in tropical plants or houseplants will probably carry them. Only in tropical countries are you likely to be able to harvest your own schefflera seeds from a tree in your yard!
There is nothing difficult about sprouting schefflera seeds. Here’s what to do:
- Let the seeds soak in a thermos of hot, but not boiling water for a day.
- Fill a few small pots with barely moist potting mix.
- Insert the seeds in the mix about ¾ to 1 ¼ inches (2 to 3 mm) deep.
- Cover with a mini-greenhouse or clear plastique bag to maintain a high humidity.
- Place in a brightly lit spot at warm temperatures (70–85 °F/20–27 °C), but not in full sun.
- Keep the mix slightly moist at all times.
- Germination will probably take a month or two.
- Once the seedlings appear, gradually open the bag to acclimatize them to drier air.
- When the bag is fully open, remove it and treat the seedlings like adult plants.
Umbrella plants are subject to several insect pests.
Two-spotted spider mites attack when the air is dry and cause leaf drying, yellowing and loss. They are truly tiny and difficult to see, but they do leave tell-tell “spider webbing.” Maintaining high atmospheric humidity can help keep them at bay. And spraying with water or soapy water can knock their population way back.
Spider mite infestations are the main reason I would not consider the schefflera an easy-to-grow houseplant. They’re unfortunately very common, especially with novice gardeners.
When scale insects (small brown, green or transparent domes that stick to stems or leaves) and mealybugs (like little balls of cotton), brought in on contaminated plants, settle on scheffleras, they can be very hard to remove. They drain the plant’s energy and can eventually kill it. Plus abundant sticky honeydew drips from the insects onto your furniture and floor. Most treatments seem to work at first, then the pests come back again and again. Try your favorite methods, but if they fail, it may be wise to get rid of the contaminated plant and start afresh.
To prevent scale insects and mealybugs, always isolate newly purchased plants for at least 30 days before mixing them in with your other plants.
The schefflera: just a standard, stalwart, stylish indoor tree that is widely available and could be part of your décor for years or even decades. Be sure to give it a try!