When Houseplants Are Unwilling to Branch

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An avocado plant will grow straight for the ceiling: it’s very reluctant to branch. Source: www.reddit.com

Have you ever noticed that certain houseplants branch abundantly, all on their own, growing nice and full, while others just grow straight upwards, without a branch to be seen? The latter are often cutest in their youth, when they’re still fairly squat or have lower leaves covering the upright stem, but then become lanky as they mature.

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A cane dieffenbachia (Dieffenbachia seguine, syn. D. amoena) will head right to the ceiling without producing a single branch if you let it! Source:  www.flowershopnetwork.com.

Often these species—such plants as the avocado (Persea americana), false aralia (Dizygotheca elegantissima, now Pierandra elegantissima), schefflera (Schefflera actinophylla), rubber tree (Ficus elastica) and money tree (Pachira aquatica)—grow as forest trees in the wild: they’re genetically programmed to stretch upwards until they make it through the shady forest understory into the sun, then they start to branch. They don’t seem to realize that, in your home, the best light is in the lower to middle reaches and they’ll only find disappointment (and the ceiling!) if they continue to grow upwards.

Then there are other houseplants that, without necessarily being forest trees, only begin to branch after they bloom for the first time … which, since indoor conditions are rarely equal to what they would have received in the wild, can be years away. That’s the case with such plants as the mother-of-thousands (Kalanchoe daigremontiana) and the Madgascar palm (Pachypodium lamerei). (The latter, I hasten to point out, is not a true palm, but in the dogbane family (Apocynaceae).

Others, though, just seem to be naturally branchless, even at maturity. The Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema spp.) and the cane dieffenbachia (Dieffenbachia seguine) fall into that category.

What to do with such reluctant branchers?

Look for Self-Branching Cultivars

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Todays’s coleus tend to stay short and rounded without pinching, a far cry from the ungainly bare-stemmed coleuses of fifty years ago. Source: www.jparkers.co.uk

Sometimes plant hybridizers have helped home gardeners by developing self-branching varieties. The old-fashioned coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides, syn. Solenostemon scutellarooides and Coleus blumei) used to be a very reluctant brancher, but most modern varieties ramify abundantly. The same goes for the zonal geranium (Pelargonium x hortorum): most modern varieties produce lots of branches. There are even basal branching varieties of the old “straight-to-the-ceiling” dieffenbachia (Dieffenbachia spp.) if you look a bit and even a branching form of the Madgascar palm (Pachypodium lamerei ramosum).

Off With Their Heads!

Normally, though, if you want to stimulate branching, a bit of pinching or pruning will be necessary.

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By cutting the top off this avocado plant, you’ll help encourage it to branch. Source: syntk.wordpress.com

Once you cut off the top of a plant, either only its terminal bud (by pinching) or a few inches of stem (with pruning shears), this will inhibit apical dominance, a hormonal control that tells the plant not to branch, freeing dormant buds lower down on the stem to begin to develop. Sometimes this only results in a single new stem being formed (the avocado, for example, is very reluctant to branch), but if you repeat it, you can often get a second stem at least. And, as new branches develop, you’ll probably need to “clip their tip” after a year or so to force them to branch as well.

Don’t be afraid to try! You can chop the top off just about any houseplant that has an upright stem … except palms. True palms simply don’t branch (except under very rare circumstances, not likely to occur in your home), although some do produce offsets at their base. So, leave palms alone and feel free to cut back everything (and I do mean everything) else.

You can, by the way, root the tops of plants you cut off. Yep, just grow them like any other cutting! Or you can try air layering: slower but often even more effective.

The More, The Merrier

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By planting several non-branching plants (here, Aglaonema ‘Silver Bay’) in the same pott, you can create an attractive, fuller look. Source: bloomscape.com

For a quicker fix, try planting several reluctant branchers together in the same pot. This will give them a naturally fuller look that can last for years. Nurseries regularly do this with such plants as Chinese evergreens, false aralias and dracaenas (Dracaena spp.). When these plants in shared pots do begin to look ungainly, just cut the top off all of the stems and they’ll all resprout from lower down, re-establishing the dense look.


Yes, you can prune or repot most houseplants to get them to put on the dense growth you want … or you can just let them grow in their usual awkward beanpole way until the ceiling interferes. You choose!

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The Money Tree Doesn’t Age Gracefully

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Braided money tree: Pachira glabra or P. aquatica

You’ve certainly seen the money tree around. With its scheffleralike leaves and its usually braided-stems, this houseplant really stands out from the crowd.

The money tree got its name from its five leaflets. Five is an auspicious number in Chinese tradition, associated with wealth. According to feng shui superstitions, bringing a five-leaved plant into the home will ensure financial prosperity (who knew it could be so easy!). Of course, it sometimes produces six or seven leaflets, sometimes even nine, but that’s all right too: they’re also lucky numbers.

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Money tree nursery in Taiwan.

To enhance the money tree’s luckiness, it is most often sold braided with five interlaced stems. Never four (four means death). If one stem of a five-stemmed plant dies, superstitious owners will quickly make the plant disappear.

Millions of braided money trees have been exported from Taiwan since the 1980s, where growing and producing them remains a major industry.

What Is It?

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Pachira aquatica flower in Costa Rica. P. glabra would have had white stamens. You aren’t likely to see flowers in your home.

There are actually two different species sold as money tree, both from the Malvaceae family and native to Central and South America. Pachira aquatica usually gets the credit, but it’s not nearly as widely grown as P. glabra. Both are very similar and hard to tell apart when young, but P. glabra has a more distinctly bulbous base. The feather-duster like white flowers of P. aquatica have red-tipped stamens and its large swollen fruits are a velvety mahogany brown while the otherwise similar flowers of P. glabra are entirely white while the fruits are green and smooth. Both contain edible nuts, leading to a second common name, Malabar chestnut.

Neither is likely to ever bloom indoors, but they flower readily enough when planted outdoors in tropical climates. When they do, you’ll discover the large and very attractive flowers open at night and drop off the following morning.

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My own Pachira glabra. After years of pruning, it finally has a second branch!

Both are tall forest trees in nature. This shows in their growth habit: they are very reluctant to branch when young. Even if you chop the head off a money tree, it usually produces only one replacement stem, only rarely two. As a result, potted money trees take on a distinctly ungainly look as they age. At least braided trees, each with their own set of leaves, will look fuller for a longer time.

For appearance’s sake, it’s probably best to cut them back annually in late winter. Yep, off with their heads! Don’t worry, they’ll regrow quickly. Close-up, this will lead to a lot of pruning scars and frankly, the money tree is not a plant that ages gracefully. Still, with a little luck new foliage will partly hide the scars, so they won’t be too noticeable from a distance,

Care

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If you keep chopping your tree’s head off, you can keep it this size practically for ever! Photo: DC, Wikimedia Commons

The money tree is a surprisingly tough houseplant.

Although in nature adult trees grow with their upper branches exposed to full tropical sun, young trees germinate in deep shade and retain that tolerance when grown indoors. They thrive along rivers and lakes with their roots practically soaking in water, as the name P. aquatica suggests, yet are very drought tolerant. Nor do they seem to mind if their roots are horrendously crowded in a small pot. (You’ll often see money trees grown as bonsais.)

As a result, you can put money trees in full sun or well back from the window, water them regularly or let their soil dry out completely, and either neglect them or baby them and they’ll probably survive. Normal indoors temperatures are fine. They tolerate dry air, but will look lusher under humid conditions. They don’t seem to react at all to fertilizer, but logically you’d still apply a bit in the spring and summer.

Put them outside for the summer in full sun if possible (that will be the only way you could ever expect them to bloom, for example), but do acclimatize them gradually, as the leaves will burn if suddenly exposed to intense sun. Bring them in when night temperatures start to drop below 50˚ F (10˚ C).

Don’t panic when some of the old leaves turn yellow and start to drop off, usually in late winter or early spring. This is part of their growth cycle and new leaves will appear shortly, if not at the same time. Don’t expect much growth at other seasons, at least, not unless you cut it back: whatever this plant does, it will normally do it in spring.

Carry out any repotting in early spring as well. If you want their stems to swell to the bulbous shape they are capable of, they’ll need much more space than in the crowded pot in which they are usually sold.

If you want to continue to braid the stems, do so while they are young and pliable, using twist ties to hold the braids together until they solidify. The Taiwanese use yellow-, gold- or red-colored twist ties, apparently luckier than green ones.

Your plant grew from seed, but seeds are rarely available from mail order sources simply because they are so short-lived, but you can multiply your money tree from cuttings if you want.

Ugly But Alive

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The bulbous base of my P. glabra.

I have a 7-foot (2-meter) P. glabra with a single trunk, swollen at the base like a cantaloupe, that I’ve grown indoors for nearly 20 years. It’s not very pretty (all those pruning scars!), but I have managed to get it to branch, a bit, by cutting off every stem that tries to grow taller. It would certainly never win a beauty contest and I think I only keep because it clings so stubbornly to life. That is something, in my book, that ought to be rewarded.20170327E