The Survivors: Heartleaf Philodendron

Larry Hodgson has published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings available to the public. This text was originally published in Canadian Garden News in February 1988.

Philodendron hederaceum
Photo: Dan Jones.

I can just hear the green thumbers among you cringing: “Oh. no! He’s not really going to talk about that plant, is he?” Well, yes, he is. I really am going to tell you how to grow the most common foliage plant of all. the one which, as far as I can tell, no one has yet ever succeeded in killing other than by leaving it outside at freezing temperatures: the good ol’ heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum oxycardium). Not only is it one of the best houseplant survivors known to humankind—and therefore the perfect choice for this column!—but if properly cared for, it can be a downright attractive plant!

All those 20-foot-long strips with a few leaves on the end that make so many plant lovers cringe are not examples of philodendrons at their best, but instead, of how not to grow them. Let’s take a look at what this stalwart standby really needs.

Portrait of Rear Admiral William Bligh
Portrait of Rear Admiral William Bligh by Alexander Huey. Photo: National Library of Australia.


Before I go into its care, though. I can’t help but tell you a bit about the history of this fascinating plant. First brought back to Europe from the West Indies by Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, it was grown uniquely as a conservatory specimen until enterprising Florida nurserymen saw this “toughie” as a potential moneymaker during the hard times of the Depression era. After all. what could cheer you up more than an easy-to-care-for living creature on the windowsill? If you can find houseplants in supermarkets and department stores everywhere today, you can thank the philodendron, the first plant to make it as a 5 and dime staple. It was the world’s top-selling houseplant until dethroned by the African violet and still remains one of the best-selling foliage plant the world over.

Easy to Grow

It has two characteristics that really appeal to nurserymen: it can hold on to its leaves for months under the worst conditions (yes. even those of the plant section of your local department store)… and it can be rapidly and cheaply propagated. Every single piece of stem with at least one node (the point where the leaf joins the stem) will root and grow, and it is easy to prepare an attractive pot or basket that is ready for sale in only a few weeks. Homeowners like it for about the same reasons. Here is one plant that will survive in the near dark (one study showed it can carry on photosynthesis at the incredibly low rate of 15 foot candles!), in dry air, hot conditions, etc. without even flinching … or just barely. And you can easily exchange cuttings with friends and family.

Philodendron hederaceum in sunlight
Photo: David J. Stang

Good Conditions for a Good Look

The fact that it is so tough shouldn’t mislead you into thinking it really likes those conditions. A really well-grown philodendron bears little resemblance to the stringy plant we know. When it lacks light, grows in soil drier than the Sahara Desert and receives humidity no stronger than that given off by the average oven, it grows smaller and smaller leaves and the distance between the leaf nodes increases, making for those long, barren strings that some people tack to the wall as if trying for a world record in a philodendron-growing contest.

Under ideal conditions, that is, good light (including, believe it or not, several hours of direct morning or afternoon sun), high (50% or greater) humidity and soil kept constantly moist, the philodendron grows larger and larger leaves, from 5 inches to (eventually) a foot or so in diameter, and has short internodes, resulting in a full, dense appearance. With poor conditions, the leaves are not only small but rather dark and dull, yellowing quickly with age. Under good conditions, they are an attractive shimmering bronze green as they unfold, then they darken to a rich green shine.

Philodendron hederaceum outdoors
Photo: Alialb.

Reach for the Sky

Even a well-grown plant will, however, tend to get straggly after a while that’s because the plant’s nature is to reach literally for the sky. In the wild, a heartleaf philodendron begins its life as a weak—growing liana on the jungle floor, stretching for the light in an inhospitable environment. It works its way slowly upward, using its aerial roots to cling to nearby trees, and as it mounts, the light gets better and better and the leaves get bigger and bigger until it finally reaches the upper canopy of the tree. There, basking in tropical sunlight and humidity, its leaves reach giant size and then, and only then, the philodendron flowers and bears the seed of the next generation.

Unless you want your plant climbing the walls in search of light (which, by the way, it won’t find in most homes because, unlike a tropical forest, it is brighter at window level than ceiling level), you have to keep it within bounds by trimming. Of course, trimming seems a cruel thing to do, but just think of the results: each time you cut off a section of stem, the plant becomes fuller and fuller, producing more and more branches. And each cut section makes an ideal cutting to start a new plant… so what do you have to lose?

Philodendron hederaceum on moss pole
Philodendron growing up a moss pole. Photo:


How you trim it depends on what you want from it. Some philodendrons are sold in hanging pots and you’ll probably want to jet it trails downward for a few feet before worrying about trimming it. When it takes up a bit too much space, but long before it reaches that “gangly” stage, cut back the longest of the stems to near-pot level. A few months later, cut back another, then another. By trimming it a bit here and there every few months rather than all at once, it will never look barren.

If yours has been growing on a moss-covered pole, use the same method, but cut one branch at a time further down the pole, sometimes near ground level, sometimes near the middle. Never just trim off the branches near the top of the pole: they’ll just produce new branches from the top and the plant will soon look as ungainly as ever. If the pole is too short. I suggest removing it entirely rather than trying to attach a new piece to the top of the old one (a sure way to make even the healthiest philodendron look tacky) and replacing it with one much higher, then trimming the plant back severely. Old branches seldom look right when tied back on: new ones, however, will quickly grow to cover the entire pole. Do try and keep the pole moist so the roots can anchor themselves solidly.

You can accomplish this by watering the pole as well as the soil and by spraying it at least once a day (I know one person who claims he keeps the pole moist by putting an ice cube on it every morning and every evening!) If not, just use twist ems to hold the stems in place.

Cold Shoulder

Tough as they may be, philodendrons do not like cold drafts, so keep them away from open doors in the winter. The same goes for the full-summer sun unless the plant has had a chance to adapt slowly to the brighter light. Use a good potting soil—light and airy, yet containing some real soil—when you repot this plant more than once every 3 or 4 years or so when they’ll let you know they need more root space by drying out too quickly from one watering to the next. Unless conditions are really good, this is one plant that doesn’t need much fertilizer. Monthly applications of a diluted high fertilizer are just fine.


If you want more philodendrons, no problem!

Just stick the cut-off ends of the stems you trim into any potting soil and keep moist. Philodendrons will also root much better in water than most plants, even growing for years with no soil, but that’s no way to grow specimen plants!

Of course, if philodendrons are being grown because they are so tough, should you really be wasting good growing space on them when any corner will do? I think so, but my solution is to buy two of them and to move them around. One can spend a month in the dark corner while its companion recuperates in a bright window. It won’t mind at all and that way you can have beautiful specimens in very poor conditions indeed. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too!

Thaumatophyllum bipinnatifidum
Thaumatophyllum bipinnatifidum. Photo: cultivar413

Other Philodendrons

The heartleaf philodendron goes under many Latin names, but the correct one is now apparently Philodendron hederaceum. There are also many other philodendrons worth trying, but most need very good light to do well and are not nearly as adaptable as our old-fashioned heart-leaved friend. Some, such as Thaumatophyllum bipinnatifidum, (a particularly easy one, by the way) are “tree” philodendrons, that is they grow upright with no support and form a solid “trunk”. Their ungainly aerial roots, which in this case stretch out as much as down, seeking to support the plant’s stem, can simply be cut off. However most of these rapidly outgrow the average home (I once grew a T. bipinnatifidum from seed to a 6-foot wide specimen in only a little over a year).

Velvet philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum var. hederaceum)
Velvet philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum var. hederaceum). Photo: Dan Jones

Others are climbers like the heartleaf philodendron. Many of the modern hybrids with reddish to nearly black leaves or mottled coloring are just beautiful in a bright spot, but quickly languish if humidity and light are lacking. One favorite of mine is the velvet philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum var. hederaceum) with smaller coppery heart-shaped leaves that have a velvety touch: it’s relatively easy to grow, although not as tolerant as its cousin.

Epipremnum aureum.
Epipremnum aureum. Photo: Joydeep


Then, of course, there is also the pothos, a philodendron look-alike from Asia. Presently going by the name Epipremnum aureum, the pothos has leaves variegated in gold or, in cultivar ‘Marble Queen’, white. It is nearly as hardy as the heartleaf philodendron and its bright colors will certainly lighten up a dark room! Under good conditions, not only do the leaves get bigger and bigger, but they began to split along the edges like a Monstera deliciosa, the Swiss cheese plant, another philodendron relative.

Syngonium podophyllum
Syngonium podophyllum ‘Emerald Green’. Photo: Jerzy Opio?a.

And you might also want to try another “toughie”, the Arrowhead plant or Syngonium podophyllum. Keep this one trimmed back by removing any branches that start to trail: it really loses any charm it may have had once it tries to climb. There are some particularly beautiful new selections of this plant, such as the very compact ‘White Butterfly’, with white-veined green leaves that become almost entirely white under good light and the pink-variegated dwarf. ‘Pinky’.

Philodendrons and friends are top choices for home growing if you don’t have quite the best conditions or the greenest thumb you would like. They’re true survivors in every sense of the word!

1 comment on “The Survivors: Heartleaf Philodendron

  1. Love my philly. Cut the stragglers regularly and it has maintained a lovely shape for years. At work the landlord has several of these hanging in sconce-like holders under the flourscent ceiling lighting at regular intervals in the windowless halls on all seven floors. They are kept dusted and cared for and really give a visual boost to the area. They have thrived for at least 12 years that I am aware of. Good article!

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