Houseplant of the month

Cissus: The June 2023 Houseplant of the Month

Photo par Forest & Kim Starr.

A few years ago, a colleague saw my desk full of plants and said, “Here, I’ve got a cutting for you”. I was expecting a generous banality (pothos, philodendron, a silver inch plant perhaps?), but to my great surprise she gave me a three-leaf cutting of Cissus alata. Since 2020, this cissus has given me no trouble whatsoever, has tolerated a few watering blunders and has never stopped growing. To this day, I still can’t understand why it isn’t more popular – it’s got it all!

Origin

There are around 350 species of Cissus, a member of the Vitaceae family. Most are found in tropical regions, extending from South America to Africa and Oceania. Their name comes from the Greek kissos, meaning “ivy”.

All cissus are vines, i.e. climbing plants. They are held in place by tendrils, a specialized organ that enables them to cling to the branches of other trees. Unlike some of the climbing plants we usually grow in our homes (syngonium, philodendron), cissus eventually form a bark on their stems.

Other related plants, also belonging to the Vitaceae family, are grape vines (Vitis spp.) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which grow in North America.

In tropical countries, certain species of cissus, here C. javana, make attractive ornamental climbers. Photo by Don McCulley.

Varieties

Cissus alata. Photo par l’auteur.

Cissus alata

The cissus most often grown indoors is called C. alata, formerly C. rhombifolia, and is native to Central America. The trifoliate leaves have serrated margins in the basic species, taking on a slightly coppery hue when young and still covered with small white hairs. They eventually turn dark green. C. alata is very easy to grow and has given rise to the cultivar ‘Ellen Danica’ or oak-leaved ivy, an easy cultivar with more rounded leaves than the basic species.

Cissus alata ‘Ellen Danica’, with more rounded, oak-like leaves. Photo by Juandev.

Cissus antarctica

Cissus antarctica. Photo par Dinkum.

Cissus antarctica is grown as a houseplant. Also known as C. oblongata or “kangaroo vine”, it comes to us from Australia. Unlike the cissus presented above, it has only one leaf per node. Well adapted to indoor conditions, this plant is often described as intractable.

Cissus striata

Top left, Parthenocissus quinquefolia (photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss), compared with C. striata (main photo, by Peganum). Although the leaves look very similar, C. striata doesn’t have the same cold tolerance as Parthenocissus quinquefolia, also known as Virginia creeper!

A rarer species is Cissus striata, with its five-leafed, slightly serrated leaves. New leaves are a soft, almost translucent green. Cultivation is slightly more delicate than that of Cissus alata, but still easy. 

Cissus quadrangularis et Cissus quinquangularis 

Cissus quadrangularis. Photo par Dinesh Valke.

Cissus quadrangularis, and its brother C. quinquangularis, are very different from the other cissus in the family: their fleshy stems, with four (quadrangularis) or five (quinquangularis) distinct sides, are swollen with water to enable them to survive the drought in Africa, where they originate. At each node where their thick stems join, there’s a round leaf and a tendril for climbing.

At first glance, it’s clear that these are succulent plants. They are therefore more tolerant of dry air than other cissus, but should be given more light and allowed to dry out before watering. These cissus plants can grow in traditional or lightened potting soils, such as those designed for cacti and succulents.

Cissus rotundifolia

Cissus rotundifolia, photo par Forest & Kim Starr.

Cissus rotundifolia, another succulent cissus, requires similar care to C. quadrangularis. As its name suggests, its fleshy leaves are almost round.

Cissus javana

At the other extreme is Cissus javana, formerly C. discolor, colloquially known as rex begonia vine, which comes to us from Southeast Asia. Unlike the Cissus we’ve come across so far, this is a difficult plant to grow, requiring constantly moist soil and high atmospheric humidity, without which its leaves can curl, dry out and fall off. To help it survive the winter, when the air is much drier due to central heating, a humidifier can be added close by. Another tip might be to prune it back severely and reduce watering to put it into dormancy until spring.

Cissus amazonica is a similar cultivar, with silvery leaves and almost white-green veins.

Cyphostemma adenapoda

Cyphostemma adenopoda, formerly cissus rose, belonging to the Laidback Gardener

Honorable mention: Cyphostemma adenopoda. It used to belong to the cissus genus, but now Cyphostemma is its own genus in the Vitaceae family, comprising some 250 species, distinguished from cissus by their caudiform base, i.e. having a swollen trunk or roots. Formerly known as pink cissus, Cyphostemma adenopoda is almost identical to Cissus alata, but its stems have a pretty pinkish-red tint due to the small hairs that cover them. Its caudiform side is its tuberous root system, which enables it to withstand drought. Its cultivation is similar to that of other easy cissus, but it tolerates full sun even better.

Malgré ses besoins bien plus élevés en humidité, il semble que certaines personnes savent faire pousser C. javana. Photo par Begoniaceae.

Growing Tips

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Light

Cissus are happy with medium to bright indirect light.

Exceptions: succulent cissus (full sun preferred).

Watering

Water them when about half the potting soil has dried out. The leaves of cissus will begin to bend under their own weight in dry conditions, but they will quickly recover as soon as the plant is watered. Yellowing leaves are often caused by soil that remains too moist for too long, and should be avoided.

Exceptions: succulent cissus (leave potting soil to dry out completely), C. javana and amazonica (keep potting soil constantly moist).

Atmospheric Humidity

Although they prefer the humidity of the tropics, cissus adapt well to the level of atmospheric humidity found in our homes.

Soil and Potting

Houseplant potting soil is ideal for cissus. It grows well in a narrow space, but in its early years it grows so fast that it may need to be repotted several times a year.

Fertilizers

Normal dose during the growing season. Moreover, its growth is seasonal, with a noticeable upturn in spring, when it begins to produce several leaves at a time, taking on an almost shrubby shape when young, and an almost sarment-like form when older.

Temperature

It is advisable to always keep it at a temperature above 13°C, even more so for less easily cultivated forms.

Culture, in a nutshell:

CissusAlata, Amazonia, Striata,Quadrangularis
Quinquangularis
Rotundifolia
Javana
Antartica
LightMedium, brightDirect, brightMoyenne, bright
WateringSlightly dry soilCompletely dry soilMoist soil at all times
HumidityPrefers high but tolerates normalTolerates very low humidityHigh at all times
Potting soilNormalNormal or for cacti and succulentsNormal

Care

Cissus require only the usual maintenance required by most houseplants: remove a yellowing basal leaflet here, wash the leaves occasionally there and help it to attach itself to a trellis, if you’re growing it as a climber.

Note that with its tendrils, cissus will happily climb its support, but also the plant next to it, the curtains, grandma dozing in her rocking chair… So the job is less to attach it to the trellis, and more to attach it only to the trellis! It’s best to make it climb, as its leaves get smaller and further apart as they fall back.

Another option is to prune it regularly to give it a bushy, shrubby form, which is particularly easy to achieve because of its propensity to make new branches on its own.

De mon expérience avec C. alata, les feuilles restent très longtemps sur la plante. Je pense que j’ai enlevé environ une feuille par année depuis que je l’ai! Il a donc vraiment besoin de très peu d’entretien. Photo par Derek Ramsey.

Propagation

Cissus can be propagated by taking stem cuttings. Cuttings do take some time to root, however, more than other indoor climbers. For this reason, a cutting in water may be safer than directly in potting soil.

Problems

  • Insectes: cochenilles, tétranyques si c’est une variété à feuilles minces. Ces cissus sont particulièrement sensibles aux tétranyques l’hiver, quand l’air est sec à cause du chauffage. Une manière d’éviter ce problème, ou d’y remédier, serait de mettre un humidificateur à proximité, car les tétranyques n’aiment pas l’humidité;
  • Foliage curling, drying out and falling off: lack of humidity, especially in more delicate species (C. alata, C. amazonica);
  • Leaves turning yellow or turning brown: too much water, let the soil dry out further and reduce watering;
  • White or dusty leaves: cissus are prone to mildew, a fungus that can affect it especially in overly humid conditions. Although various fungicides are available, the simplest treatment is to prune the affected foliage. In future, better air circulation and keeping foliage dry will prevent mildew;  
  • Pourriture: dans un sol maintenu trop humide, les racines peuvent pourrir et il est mieux de bouturer la plante pour la sauver.

When the soil is kept too moist, cissus plants tend to eliminate their excess water by guttation at the back of the leaves. While this is not harmful to the plant, it is a sign of over-watering, which could be a problem in the medium term.

Toxicity

Cissus all seem to be safe for pets and children, but I’ve only found confirmation for C. alata and C. javana.

Other trivial information: NASA has tested Cissus alata as a air purifying plant – I conclude that NASA itself fully agrees with me when I say that Cissus should be more popular as a houseplant.


Cissus is a generally easy-to-grow climber that tolerates suboptimal light, low atmospheric humidity and watering variations, while offering abundant growth facilitated by tendrils and a tendency to branch out, even without pruning. So cissus seems to me to have all the qualities to be elevated to the rank of easy and commonly grown houseplants, even without a green thumb. For an added challenge, it also comes in succulent and temperamental versions. Now, how about a variegated and a neon version?

Top right: the cutting, as I received it two years ago. The other photo is the plant today. I must admit, it took a bit of aesthetic arranging to get the various stems in order and to give it its full appearance… but that’s the only trouble it caused me!

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