When Pothos Leaves Do the Splits

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 Split leaves on my pothos. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

Should I be taking my pothos out to a bar to celebrate? Because my blue pothos (Epipremnum pinnatum ‘Cebu Blue’) has reached adulthood … after over 20 years of care, just like a human.

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Immature blue pothos (Epipremnum pinnatum ‘Cebu Blue’) with its small, entire leaves. Photo: stayathomeplantmom, pinterest.com

As with many aroids (the best known of which is the so-called Swiss cheese plant, Monstera deliciosa), the pothos has a juvenile form, with smaller, entire leaves, in this case about 3 inches (7 cm) long, and thin stems. Then, as it matures, and if conditions are right, the leaves get bigger and bigger and the stems get thicker.

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The adult form of blue pothos looks so different from the juvenile one, you’d swear it was an entirely different plant! Photo: kensnursery.com

At some magical point, the plant reaches “adulthood” and the formerly entire leaf becomes huge (up to 2 feet/60 cm long) and begins to split, eventually becoming pinnate, looking like a palm frond, with thick stems. It will even flower at some point (although the blooms are, I’m told, nothing to shake a stick at).

My Story

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Leaves of the mother plant are 3 to 4 inches (7 to 9 cm) long and uncut; the largest leaf of the baby is 13 inches (33 cm) long and deeply cut on one side. Photo: Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

I have probably half a dozen blue pothos at my place, most in their juvenile state. In fact, the original plant is still very juvenile. But others are maturing at various rates, with larger and larger leaves. What’s the difference?

It depends on how you grow them.

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The original plant dangles down and bears only small leaves. Photo: laidbackgardener.com

My original plant grows in a wall pot and is allowed to dangle. Dangling is not conducive to mature growth, so it has only tiny leaves. Dangling is what this tropical Asiatic liana does in the wild when it loses its grip on the tree trunk it is climbing on. As it trails downwards, the leaves get smaller and smaller, then disappear entirely.

When my plant does this (produce bare stems with no leaves), I trim off the bare part to force it to produce more foliage: dangling bare stems are just not that attractive. In the jungle, though, the now bare stem keeps growing downward, eventually reaching the jungle floor when it now begins to creep along, leafless, until it finds a new trunk. Then it will start growing upwards again and to produce small leaves once more. They then get bigger and bigger as it grows up into better light and eventually, the plant reaches adulthood and new giant cut leaves form.

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The green wall in my bathroom. Photo: laidbackgardener.blog

My mature and variously maturing pothos are all growing upwards … on my green wall. Growing upwards is conducive to enlargening leaves. Eventually they get to the top (said wall is only 7 feet/210 cm tall, after all, not the 100 feet/30 m or so the plant can attain in a jungle!), so I cut them off and reroot them at the base of the wall. They don’t lose a beat and continue to grow upwards … and in size.

Actually, I just pulled my mature stem from the wall (it had reached the top) and will be starting it from the bottom again. I’m sure it will continue to mature to even bigger, more deeply cut leaves (the longest is currently 13 inches/33 cm in length and only cut on one side) on its next trip upwards.

Your Pothos

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This is the popular golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum). Photo: http://www.alphaplantes.com

The most common pothos in homes is not my blue pothos, but rather the golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum, syn. Scindapsus aureus), with heart-shaped leaves splashed with yellow or, on certain clones, white.

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Mature golden pothos with huge split leaves. Photo: Daderot, Wikimedia Commons

But it will also grow, eventually, into a jungle giant with large split leaves if you let it grow upwards, say on a moss-covered stake it can root into. When it grows so tall, it begins to stretch beyond the stake, start it all over again. Take cuttings from the large-leaved section at the top and reroot them in a fresh pot of soil, at the base of a new stake. The cuttings will then start to grow upwards again without losing their size (or not much of it) and grow even bigger over time. Repeat as necessary until the leaves are truly giant and deeply cut.

Most people grow it in a hanging container from which it will dangle and thus always remain a juvenile. But if you grow it upwards, you can—slowly!—watch it become an adult.

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See how big pothos leaves can become if you let the plant climb? Photo: http://www.morningdewtropical.com

I think you’ll be kinda proud when your baby pothos reaches adulthood, don’t you?

Climbing Plants Like to Climb

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This dangling heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron oxycardium) will produce smaller leaves than a climbing one.

That climbing plants like to climb may seem like a fairly obvious statement, but bear with me: it really isn’t.

You see, we like to grow climbing plants (plants that mount trees, treillises, walls and other tall objects), especially climbing houseplants, in hanging baskets, with their stems dangling downwards. They certainly look pretty enough grown that way… but they don’t much like it.

Many will start to produce smaller and smaller leaves the longer they dangle. That’s the case of most aroids, including philodendrons and pothos, as well as many Cissus. Sometimes they stop producing leaves entirely, producing only a lengthening green stem. Others just stop growing after they’ve dangled for a while or refuse to bloom on any stems that trail. That’s the case for morning glories (Ipomoea spp.), for example.

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Try growing a morning glory as a hanging plant and it will try growing upwards, wrapping itself around its own stems.

Of course, many climbing plants will fight tooth and nail against dangling. The afore-mentioned morning glories will quickly start to twine back up around their own stems in an effort to grow upwards again. If you won’t let them, untangling their stems so they trail further, they will stop growing and certainly won’t bloom.

This reaction is due to hormones called auxins present in their stem tips. They concentrate in the uppermost part of the stem and stimulate growth. When the plant hangs in what is essentially an upside down position, the auxins become diluted and growth decreases or ceases.

Finding a New Support

In the wild, when a hanging plant becomes disconnected from its support, it will often trail downward to the ground, producing increasingly smaller leaves, then its stem wanders off across the soil until it finds a new support it can climb.

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A climbing plant will seek out something dark on which to climb.

At this stage, it will actually grow away from the light, an action called negative phototropism, normally a most unplantlike thing to do. But there is a method to this madness: deep shade can be caused a tree trunk or other upright object it might want to climb on. And it desperately wants to climb.

So off the stem heads towards the darkest thing around. Once it finds it, it starts growing upward again, takes up positive phototropism like any normal plant, and soon its leaves start become bigger again. Happiness at last!

When Climbing Plants Do Climb

If you switch techniques and allow your climbing plants to climb, perhaps up a trellis, a moss pole or a wall, rather than trail from a pot, many will do some striking things. Many aroids (philodendrons, pothos, monsteras, etc.) will begin to produce larger leaves — much larger leaves — when they climb. And much thicker stems too.

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Huge healthy leaves on an upright-growing heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum)

Did you know your good ol’ heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum, syn. P. oxycardiumP. scandens and P. cordatum), whose leaves are often barely 2 inches (5 cm) wide when it trails, is capable of producing leaves 1 foot (30 cm) in diameter when it climbs?

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If it weren’t for the yellow marbling, you’d scarcely recognize the huge, deeply cut leaves and thick stems of this pothos (Epipremunum aureum) as those of the popular houseplant.

And that pothos (Epipremnum aureum, syn. Scindapsus aureus) growing half neglected in the corner does the philodendron one better: at maturity (that is, when it grows upright and gets decent light [also a factor in leaf size]), not only do its leaves grow to enormous sizes, up to 40 inches by 18 inches (1 m by 45 cm), but they become deeply cut, like those of a monstera.

This increase in leaf size is also linked to sexual maturity: once they reach their full leaf size, these aroids will start to bloom and produce seeds. You thought philodendrons and pothos simply didn’t bloom? Try growing them up a tree in a tropical climate (most rooms aren’t tall enough to get them to flowering size) and they will bloom.

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Mature leaves and fruit on a creeping fig (Ficus pumila).

Other climbers keep producing small leaves as they climb, leaves that don’t change in size at first, often not for years. Then, when they’ve climbed high enough, they suddenly switch from this juvenile form to their mature form, with much larger leaves often of a very different shape and they too start to bloom and produce seeds. True ivies (Hedera spp.) do this, as does the creeping fig (Ficus pumila).

Some Climbers Don’t React

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Hoya carnosa is one climber that doesn’t seem to care which way it grows. Even hanging stems will bloom!

Not all climbers react badly to dangling. I’ve never seen a wax plant (Hoya spp.) that seemed to mind whether it was growing upwards, downwards or sideways, for example.

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Wandering jews (here Tradescantia zebrina, syn. Zebrina pendula) are natural trailers and don’t mind a bit of dangling.

And then there is the case of creeping plants we use in hanging baskets, like wandering jew (Tradescantia sp.) and Swedish ivy (Plectranthus). Although we might mistake them for climbers, they aren’t really aren’t: in nature, they’re groundcovers, wandering sideways, rooting as they go and forming carpets on the ground. They grow and bloom perfectly when you let them hang and even if you force them to grow upwards by fixing them to a support, that won’t change their leaf size or habit.

The same is true of epiphytic plants (ones that grow on tree branches), like the lipstick plant (Aeschynanthus spp.) and the goldfish plant (Nematanthus spp.). They look great in hanging baskets because they naturally arch outwards and downwards and are perfectly happy to bloom this way. But they aren’t true climbers.


Most true climbers will react positively if you allow them to grow the way Mother Nature intended them to do: upwards.

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