Houseplant of the month

Epipremnum aureum: The May 2023 Houseplant of the Month

Photo: Mokkie

A recent study revealed that in 98% of offices, there was an old green potho that was much too long, hanging sadly on the corner of a grey filing cabinet, and whose leaves had not seen sunlight since at least 1983. For all the old pothos in the world, here’s an article full of tips on how to give them, who knows, maybe a better life?

(No, there is no real study)

Origin of the Epipremnum aureum

The more popular a plant is, the more names it has, which can cause some confusion. The botanical name for the one we are dealing with today is Epipremnum aureum (although it is sometimes also called Scindapsus aureus, which adds to the confusion). It is more often known by its old name, Pothos aureus (golden) or Golden Pothos.

This plant of the Araceae family was previously placed in the genus Pothos, but botanists chose to move it two or three times before giving it the name Epipremnum aureum (for now anyway!). These changes are due to the fact that it is a plant that flowers very little (and even less as a houseplant). When we could finally observe its flower, it was closer to those of Epipremnum pinnatum than to those of the plants of the genus Pothos, hence the name change.

Nomenclature

Epipremnum aureum also has a slew of nicknames, my favorite of which is Devil’s Ivy, given in reference to the difficulty of eradicating it in the wild. Indeed, the epipremnum is an invasive plant in many places in the world, because it accepts all kinds of conditions without any reluctance and is not really part of the animals’ diet. It is this adaptability that makes epipremnum an easy, but toxic, houseplant.

Epipremnum aureum comes from the Greek words epi (top) and premnon (stem), referring to its growth as a climbing plant, and from the Latin word aureus, meaning gold, for the yellow spots that appear on its leaves when it gets enough light. In linguistics, a word with etymological roots from two languages is called a hybrid.  

Epipremnum is native to various islands in Oceania, such as the Solomon Islands and Moorea, French Polynesia. However, it has crept into other parts of the world and is now a threat to ecosystems in Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

Here we see that Epipremnum aureum have completely invaded this stretch of nature, covering the ground and trees. Photo by Forest & Kim Starr.

Description

Illustration de pothos
This illustration from the book L’Illustration horticole (vol. 27, 1871) allows a good view of the new growth, lower left, with the leaf still rolled up and the younger leaf set with a small aerial root. Photo by Charles Antoine Lemaire.

The epipremnum is a climbing plant. It starts its life as a creeper, growing towards the shade of a plant or a building, which it can then climb. Once it has found a good support, it begins its ascent with the help of its fleshy roots that allow it to adhere to the surface when the atmospheric humidity is high enough. From this moment on, its heart-shaped leaves become larger and larger. Older plants also create much thicker stems than those seen in indoor cultivation. When the plant reaches a certain size, its leaves become fenestrated (reminiscent of those of the monstera, its cousin).

Clinging to a tree, this epipremnum climbs enough to start making windowed leaves. Photo Biswarup Ganguly.

The leaves

Each new leaf appears at a node, which has the option of creating its own aerial root system or rooting to the ground. A plant is usually composed of different stem sections, easily distinguishable when the basal leaves eventually die and leave the stem bare. This ability to take cuttings in various places explains the invasive character of the epipremnum: to eradicate it, it is necessary to remove each node, otherwise it will rise again from its ashes. Although it takes longer and the success rate is lower, a section of stem with at least one node, without leaves, could eventually become a new plant. 

Feuilles de pothos
Close-up of a leaf, linked by the petiole to the stem (petiole here hidden by the leaf). The part between two sections is called the node, from which an aerial root grows. Photo by Ninad Katyare.

Although used to poor soils or in limited quantities, the epipremnum can produce a solid and extensive root system if it has the space. As for its flowering, very rare, it is typical of those of the family of the Aracées (like philodendron or dieffenbachia): a spathe surrounding a spadix made up of the male and female reproductive organs.

Photo: Chiu-Yueh Hung, Jie Qiu, Ying-Hsuan Sun, Jianjun Chen, Farooqahmed S. Kittur,Richard J. Henny, Gulei Jin, Longjiang Fan & Jiahua Xie.

Epipremnum is often confused with other climbers, especially when they are hung and let down. The continual addition of new cultivars makes it difficult to distinguish.

The silvery color and velvety texture help differentiate epipremnum from its cousin the satin pothos (really Scindapsus pictus).

Epipremnum or philodendron?

Let’s move on to a higher level of difficulty: epipremnum or philodendron? The main difference is that if the first one is allowed to climb for several meters, it will develop fenestrations, while the philodendron will never have any. Well, in practice, this information will rarely be very useful to identify the plant in the office! So, let’s look at the growth of the new leaves: if they appear surrounded by a leaf sheath, which eventually dries out and falls off, it is a philodendron. The leaves of the epipremnum come out of the petiole rolled on themselves, naked.

Don’t let this lovely pot-kemon distract you, and instead observe: in the foreground, an Epipremnum aureum ‘Neon’ (a cultivar we’ll look at later); in the background, a Philodendron ‘Neon’, with a new leaf visible and, on the stem, the leaf sheath drying. Photo by the author

Varieties

Epipremnum aureum ‘Neon’. Photo par David J. Stang.

Fortunately for me, despite its popularity as a houseplant, epipremnum has remained rather modest in its number of cultivars and these are rather easy to classify.

  • The epipremnum aureum that we find most frequently is green, with leaves more or less spotted with yellow and cream. The colors appear when it is subjected to more light. There are some cultivars, like ‘Golden’ that boast more colors than the original version. There are also some cultivars that boast more colors than the original (‘Golden Queen’, ‘Hawaiian’, etc.);
  • ‘Neon’: an equally easy-care version with fully chartreuse leaves;
  • ‘Jade’: a fully green version and therefore very easy to grow. Although all epipremnums tolerate dim light, Epipremnum aureum ‘Jade’ survives this treatment best;
  • Marble Queen’ and ‘Snow Queen’: cultivars more or less variegated with cream, sometimes appearing white. To keep their colors, they need a little more light, otherwise they could turn green;
  • N’Joy’, ‘Manjula’, ‘Glacier’ or ‘Pearls and Jade’: the leaves are more or less variegated with cream, white and light green tones. I won’t lie to you: before writing the article, I thought it was the same cultivar! In general, this new generation of plants is slightly more delicate than the usual epipremnum, requiring more light and better watering management. The leaves, except for ‘Manjula’, are smaller. In spite of that, the cultivars remain easy to grow, compared to many houseplants.
  • Global Green’: a new cultivar with pale green variegated leaves.
Epipremnum aureum ‘N’Joy’, I believe, or one of that category. Note the smaller, thinner leaves, so a bit more fragile. Photo by Mokkie.

Growing Tips

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Light

In nature, epipremnums are climbers in order to get as much light as possible, so you can imagine that direct sunlight would certainly do them good! That being said, since sunny spots are coveted by other more insistent plants, be aware that epipremnum will tolerate even subdued light. The plants you buy are already accustomed to a lower light, to prepare them for the conditions usually found in our homes.

The variegated versions can be slightly more delicate: their small white parts burn quickly in direct sunlight, but tend to fade with lack of light. If you see that your epipremnum is producing fully green leaves (and that’s not what it should be doing), then medium to bright light is needed.

The leaves at the top of the picture, almost white, are more at risk of burning in direct sun, but, paradoxically, the plant will need more light to compensate for the white parts, which do little or no photosynthesis. Cultivar: ‘Marble Queen’ or ‘Snow Queen’. Photo by LucaLuca.

Watering

It is best to let the soil dry out slightly between waterings, especially when grown in low light. The epipremnum tolerates watering gaps better than watering too close together. If the leaves become bent, but do not turn yellow, it needs to be watered: it will then return to its basic shape within a few hours without too much damage (but it would be better not to go that far next time). Cultivars, which produce less photosynthesis because their leaves are less green, usually drink a little less than the basic Epipremnum aureum. ‘Neon’, for example, may develop brown spots to signify that it has a little too much water. Note that brown spots in Epipremnum can also be the result of watering it too cold.

Atmospheric Humidity

Epipremnum tolerates dry air very well, but will grow faster with humidity reminiscent of its tropical origin.

Moisture is necessary for epipremnum to climb by itself on the support it is given – in this case, a tree. Because of its invasive tendency, gardeners in tropical countries would benefit from growing it only in pots. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.

Potting Soil and Potting

Like many climbing plants, the epipremnum is content with what it has (soil for indoor plants). Let’s avoid very compact soils which suffocate the roots.

When it comes to repotting, the epipremnum makes concessions once again: there is no problem keeping it in a narrow space for several years. Plants that have not seen the light of day since 1983 are certainly not repotted every year and they still do well. Repotting is therefore rarely necessary, but can be done if the root ball dries out unusually quickly, a sign that there are more roots than substrate.

Of course, a little top dressing or at least a cleaning of the soil annually to remove mineral salts could be beneficial.

It may be anecdotal, but the only problems I had with epipremnums were directly after repotting. Coincidence? Anyway, now I leave them alone!

Fertilizers

If we do not repot our epipremnum regularly, we are probably not very keen on fertilizer applications! It will therefore happily accept any form of fertilizer at the recommended dose during the growing season, but will also tolerate its absence. Not a very demanding plant!

Temperature

Be careful! This is the only time when the epipremnum can act up: it is a purely tropical plant that requires warm temperatures at all times, at least 16°C in winter and 18°C in summer.

Maintenance

Not much on that front (what a surprise!). Like all plants, it will be happy to be washed regularly. Dust-free leaves will allow it to photosynthesize better. Once in a while, it will be necessary to remove a yellowing leaf, the oldest one. For plants climbing in non-tropical humidity, they must be manually fixed to the trellis.

Epipremnum can be pruned when it becomes too long for your needs. Over the years, the stems at the base can become bald and a youthful cutting will help to rebalance it (see next section).

It is also recommended to pinch it to stimulate branching, but I personally have never seen an epipremnum that made several leaves at the same time. In general, to have a bushier plant, it is necessary to add cuttings.

Multiplication

Epipremnum is very easy to take cuttings from, as it roots quickly directly in soil or water, and tolerates changes from one environment to another well. With its good tolerance to drought and its speed of growth, the cuttings know a significant success rate.

Example of the advantageous presentation of a small cutting of epipremnum in water. A bunch of cuttings making roots can serve very well as a decoration for a lit table, without direct sun. Photo by Jubair1985.

Problèmes

  • Curled leaves and dry soil: it didn’t get enough water. Water it.
  • Several leaves turning yellow at the same time and wet soil: it has had too much water. Let the soil dry out completely before resuming watering. If the rot has reached the roots, cuttings may be necessary to save the plant.
  • Pests: Insects are generally not a major problem. Mealy bugs and thrips occasionally.
  • Stems getting longer and longer, leaves getting smaller and smaller: normal for plants in hanging pot. The effects can be limited by increasing the light or by frequent cuttings. A bushier cascade will look less bald.

Toxicité

Another reason why it is invasive is that no one can eat it: all parts of the epipremnum are toxic to humans, cats and dogs.

Tips for Purchasing

The two usual presentations: hanging (left) or on a fancy trellis. It can also be grown around a foam stake. Photo by Bff (left) and by Asabengurtza (right).

Epipremnums are almost always composed of several cuttings in the same pot: choose a generously stocked pot, even if the stems are shorter. As it grows quickly, it will quickly become abundant.

For variegated versions, favor the plants with the best new leaf color, as these will indicate what the plant will look like in a few months or years.

New cultivars may be more expensive, as they are new. But since epipremnums grow fast and take cuttings quickly, the supply increases and therefore the price decreases. Being patient saves money.

It is such an easy plant to take cuttings from. I respect anyone who wants to buy one, but it is more economical (and ecological) to ask friends for cuttings. With 6 or 8 cuttings, you will have a very attractive pot in a few months!

That’s it! You may now know a little more about pothos and how to give it the best possible conditions to live life to the fullest! But the beauty is that this much too long old pothos that has been hanging sadly in the corner of a grey filing cabinet since 1983 is so resilient that there is no problem in continuing to treat it as before. If the recipe works…

Photo par Joydeep.

Colin Laverdure has no qualifications other than his last name (Laverdure is French for "the greenery") and a slightly excessive passion for plants of all kinds, but particularly for houseplants. When he's not watering his personal collection, he's interested in writing fiction or singing with his choir.

3 comments on “Epipremnum aureum: The May 2023 Houseplant of the Month

  1. It is gratifying to see an old classic that has been popular for as long as anyone can remember rather than a recently introduced species that has not yet proven its worthiness. Although most of the cultivars are modern, ‘Marble Queen’ is one that I remember from the 80s.

  2. What about scale? (as in scale insects). I have a bad infestation in plants near my huge and lush pothos but haven’t yet spotted any scaleybugs on the latter. Does scale generally give epipremnum a miss?

  3. Ferne Dalton

    Not a plant I ever wanted to grow…just too easy but quite enjoyed the excellent writing. Thank you.

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