When you talk about plants to someone who says they don’t have a green thumb, nine times out of ten they’ll say they need to find plants that tolerate missed watering. It’s really the frequency of watering that worries people most. So, almost all the plants we recommend to beginners are drought-tolerant (among other things).
However, most plants die from overwatering when they’re in restricted light conditions. So what about people with an overly generous hand? What plant should they get, knowing that the indestructible snake plant they’ll place in the shade will inevitably turn into soft cardboard after only a few months of their care?
The answer – surprisingly, since it’s written right above – is Syngonium!
Although it’s often referred to simply as syngonium (which is what I’m going to do throughout this article), this plant, grown in our homes since Victorian times, is most often Syngonium podophyllum. It’s a plant from the Syngonium genus, itself made up of some thirty species, belonging to the Araceae family. Syngoniums occur naturally in the tropical forests of America, from Mexico to Brazil, but have been introduced as ornamental plants in Africa and Oceania, where they soon became invasive. (No surprise there. Most “easy” plants are “easy” because they can survive almost anything, including our mistreatment. This makes them very difficult to exterminate outdoors, where they benefit from an abundance of light and humidity, conditions that are always winning for tropical plants).
Other names for syngonium are goosefoot plant or arrowhead vine. It’s also known as arrowhead philodendron, although it’s not a philodendron (a cousin of the same family, the Araceae), or Nephthytis, an African plant with which it was confused before being isolated in the Syngonium genus. Of all these names, Nephthytis is still often used.
Are There Any Genuine Nephthytis on the Houseplant Market?
It’s possible. The confusion is understandable: both Syngonium and Nephthytis have arrow-shaped leaves, at least in juvenile form, although those of the African cousins appear slightly more rounded. On the other hand, Nephthytis is a much smaller genus than Syngonium, with only six recognized species. So, while it’s indeed possible that Nephthytis is grown and sold in Quebec as an ornamental plant, it’s far more likely to be a misidentified Syngonium.
Syngonium is a plant with a changing form, depending on its stage of life. In its juvenile form, it grows in clumps, resembling a rosette whose stems are camouflaged by numerous fleshy, glossy, arrow-shaped leaves. This is the form most often grown indoors. Plants usually produced on a large scale (mainly from artificial tissue culture) even come with a few shoots at the base, giving it a pretty bushy appearance.
Growth and Flowering
As it grows, developing a good batch of grey roots if it has the space, syngonium begins to take on a climbing form: the leaves get bigger and bigger, but are increasingly spaced out, revealing a stem with visible nodes, from which grow small, fleshy aerial roots that the plant uses to climb. Each node produces a single arrow-shaped leaf and has the potential to produce a new root system to support the plant.
The syngonium will then attempt to climb or fall back, in search of support. The drooping plant produces ever longer stems and ever more widely spaced leaves, this new form contrasting with its juvenile appearance. On the other hand, if it finds a support, it will cling to it and take on its adult form. Syngonium then produces spaced, three- and then five-lobed leaves, which become digitate with seven or nine leaflets with age. Mature plants are rarely grown indoors, as they would have to climb several meters.
Under domestic conditions, syngonium does not flower. In the wild, the flowers are not very attractive, resembling those typically produced by other Araceae.
On considère les syngoniums comme «hémiépiphytes». En effet, bien qu’ils poussent habituellement dans le sol, il arrive que leurs tiges, flexibles et un peu fragiles, se brisent alors qu’elles commencent à devenir grimpantes et certaines plantes parviendront quand même à survivre en poussant sur l’écorce de l’arbre, devenant ainsi techniquement épiphytes.
Syngonium is a readily available houseplant, and new cultivars and hybrids are constantly coming onto the market. It’s partly the ease of cultivation, for both buyer and grower, and the speed with which plants arrive in a commercially attractive form, that make it popular.
Some Differences Between Syngoniums
Hybridizers therefore work on different aspects to offer new syngoniums that differ in the following respects:
- Leaf color: in addition to green leaves, we also see pale green, almost white leaves, chartreuse (lime green) leaves, reddish leaves and pinkish leaves. The undersides of the leaves can also take on a different hue;
- The color of their veins: some syngoniums stand out because the veins at the heart of their leaves have reddish or pinkish tints, which can make an attractive contrast with the colors mentioned above;
- The shape of their leaves: arrow-shaped leaves are common, but there are also syngoniums whose leaves are naturally three-lobed or more, even when the plant is juvenile or slightly climbing;
- Type of growth: since it’s mainly (but not always) the juvenile form of syngoniums that we’re looking to grow, modern cultivars often aim to offer a naturally compact plant for as long as possible, to move away from the climbing form, considered more unsightly. We therefore see syngoniums that take several years to start climbing, and climbing syngoniums whose internodal space is naturally small even when climbing. Finally, there are also dwarf varieties whose leaves remain small even when the plant reaches maturity;
- Variegation: some syngoniums have bicolored or even tricolored leaves, each with more or less white or pink variegation. Some syngoniums are also dotted with pink.
Since cultivars are often complex hybrids (and sometimes have some nice surprise features!), they often combine more than one of the above-mentioned characteristics.
In fact, most of them are compact, a word I might use about 56 times in the next paragraph. Unless it’s an old syngonium inherited from the Victorian era, most of the following syngoniums can be considered compact, so I’ll avoid mentioning it for each variety.
Some Interesting Examples
Here are a few notable examples:
Its rather variegated leaves are green or pale green, with a more or less prominent white vernation. Although it starts to climb quickly compared with other cultivars, it is still reputed to have a compact form. It’s the most commonly grown variety, as it’s very rare to find a basic syngonium on the market these days;
Syngonium with entirely pink leaves, especially the new ones, which then turn a pale pinkish green;
The leaves are so pale green that they appear entirely white;
It’s this syngonium’s highly visible white veins that give it its charm;
The leaves are neon with pinkish veins. This syngonium retains a juvenile form for some time before climbing lazily. This is a good thing, as mature leaves lose their attractive venation (or rather, their venation becomes much less obvious);
Syngonium with dark green leaves subtly enhanced by red veins;
A medium-sized Syngonium whose green leaves are strongly veined with a reddish color, giving them a warm, almost metallic tone;
As its name suggests (the “Pixie” is a kind of little fairy in English mythology), is a dwarf syngonium whose leaves are similar to those of the ‘White Butterfly’ but smaller, hardly more than the size of a two-dollar. Fast-growing, it remains dense even as it begins to climb;
Ce syngonium vert foncé se distingue par ses veines blanches très prononcées et la texture veloutée de ses feuilles. Fait intéressant: c’est le seul syngonium de cette liste à ne pas être un Syngonium podophyllum, mais plutôt un S. wendlandii, du genre Syngonium;
Syngonium with dark green, three-lobed leaves. There’s also a five-lobed version called ‘Five Fingers’, with slightly tingled leaves;
Small, almost dwarf Syngonium with pale green leaves dotted with pink;
Albo / variegata
Syngonium with variable green leaves, variegated with white. Since variegation is a malformation (part of the leaf is albino, producing little or no photosynthesis), it’s generally more expensive, and special care must be taken to prevent it from turning entirely green again, or on the contrary, entirely white, in which case the plant would be unable to produce photosynthesis and would die;
This time, the variegation is pink, forming coarse, variable patches on green foliage. The leaves have three lobes, adding to the charm;
‘Red Spot Tricolor’
A new syngonium that seems to be a blend of the two previous ones. It is variegated with an blend of white and pink, for ever-changing colors on its three-lobed leaves.
This list is far from exhaustive!
Syngoniums are very tolerant of low-light situations and brighten up dark corners of the home better than many other plants. Like all plants, syngoniums prefer medium to bright light. On the other hand, direct sunlight can quickly burn their foliage, especially the pale-foliage cultivars.
Tips and tricks!
Do you have that spot in your home where only one plant is missing, but all of them are dying because the light is too low? There’s a solution! Rotate your plants so that none of them remains in that hostile spot for more than 2 or 3 weeks before returning to a more clement situation. I mention this because the syngonium, which is so tolerant of abuse and clumsiness, will put up with this rough treatment for just a few weeks!
Ideally, syngonium would like its potting soil to start drying out slightly before being watered again.
Araceae are interesting houseplants, as many tolerate the “combo of death” in the home: reduced light, forgotten watering and atmospheric dryness. But where most fear over-watering (Aglaonema, Epipremnum aureum, Zamioculcas zamiifolia) and some fear drought (Spathiphyllum, Schismatoglottis), Syngonium podophyllum stands out by tolerating both extremes rather well.
That’s why I highly recommend it to novice gardeners, overflowing with love but sometimes clumsy in their care.
In drought conditions, the petioles of Syngonium podophyllum collapse under the weight of its leaves, rather like those of Spathiphyllum, but less dramatically. A splash of water and they regain their shape without too much damage. As Syngonium quickly develops roots, it recovers better from this oversight than Peace Lily.
On the other hand, in over-watered situations, it takes a lot for Syngonium to succumb to rot. Even in abundant light, a uniformly moist potting soil would do it no harm, as its slender leaves lose a lot of water through evapotranspiration. Root rot is not impossible, but much less frequent than in the other Araceae mentioned above.
Syngonium tolerates dry air, but prefers a humid atmosphere.
Potting Soil and Potting
Although syngoniums can tolerate long periods in a cramped pot, they are fast-growing and may need repotting if the gardener can no longer keep up with their watering frequency. They thrive in ordinary houseplant potting soil.
They can be fertilized at the normal rate during the growing season. That said, since the aim is to slow their growth rather than speed it up, to keep the plant compact, it may be wise to fertilize sparingly.
Syngoniums are tropical plants that do not tolerate temperatures below 16°C (60 ?) in winter and 18°C (65 ?) in summer. Take care to protect them well, even for short transport at lower temperatures: their thin leaves are very sensitive.
To stay beautiful, syngonium requires simple but regular maintenance.
It’s normal to have to remove the oldest leaves. Over time, these turn yellow and dry out. They should be removed when the petiole detaches easily from the plant stem.
To maintain a juvenile form for longer, you can pinch off the new leaves, i.e. remove the most recent leaf (with the petiole if possible, as this is more aesthetically pleasing). The plant will respond by awakening a secondary bud, often two (branching is almost systematic with syngoniums), which will at least temporarily resume compact growth, delaying the appearance of the climbing form.
How to Tame Growth?
Another way of taming syngonium growth is to have it climb on a stake, such as a moss stake. For aesthetic reasons, you can create a pot with several plants at different stages (some climbing, some juvenile) and arrange them on a trellis. Climbing syngoniums will cover the trellis to create a wall of vegetation, while juvenile syngoniums will hide the more unsightly bare stems. The cuttings should then be fixed to the stake with ties, as the aerial roots of syngoniums will not attach themselves without considerable atmospheric humidity.
Syngoniums are often presented hanging. They’ll stay pretty for a few years, but will eventually adopt a growth pattern of twisted stems and ever-smaller leaf tufts, with plenty of internodal space (which can also be charming, in its own way). After all, climbers love to climb!
For lower maintenance, choose cultivars that pride themselves on being compact, and staying that way. But you have to accept that all syngoniums will end up being slightly chaotic, and that after several years, it may be a good idea to restart them from scratch using cuttings.
Fortunately, syngonium cuttings are very easy to take. Stem cuttings can be made in water or in the ground directly – at which point a greenhouse is suggested, as syngonium loses water quickly due to its thin leaves. Cuttings generally root quickly and have a good success rate in all categories.
- Smaller and smaller leaves may be a sign of insufficient light, but are normal in suspension culture;
- Increasingly exposed stems, with leaves spaced further apart, are also normal over time; the climbing form is showing its face. If not tied to a stake, the stems will eventually fall back under their own weight;
- Soft stems: if they gradually become more and more prostrate, this is perfectly natural. If they all droop lazily at the same time and the soil is rather dry, it’s a sign that watering is needed. Note that this drooping can occur in slightly damp soil; watering may resolve the situation (syngoniums are often thirsty), but it’s important to keep an eye on the situation, because if the stems don’t pick up after a few hours, we’re dealing with a rarer, but very possible, form of root rot;
- Pale or darker spots on foliage after watering: in some cultivars (notably ‘White Butterfly’, according to my observations), benign oedemas, this translucent spot on the foliage, will quickly appear, even in a situation of adequate watering. The swelling disappears after a few hours with no further damage;
- Insects: root mealybugs, mealybugs and shell mealybugs. Special mention should be made of thrips, especially echinothrips (Echinothrips americanus), which are particularly fond of syngoniums. When buying a new plant, be sure to inspect the underside of the leaves very carefully (this tip is particularly useful for syngoniums, but is a good habit to get into in general). Silvery areas of foliage, covered with small black dots, are a sign of thrips damage.
Like all Araceae, syngoniums are toxic to humans and animals, due to the calcium oxalate crystals they produce. Syngonium sap can also be irritating (burning, itching, blistering), especially to the mucous membranes of the eyes and mouth. Ingestion is also a bad idea – in general, let’s avoid eating Araceae, shall we?
Conclusion on Syngonium
Do you have a friend who loves plants, but doesn’t know how to get started? Syngonium podophyllum would be a good beginner’s plant for him: it will forgive lack of water, excess water and can be placed almost anywhere in the house. A teacher at heart, Syngonium can be used to learn how to pinch, fix on a trellis and take cuttings – all in a variety of shapes and colors.