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Philodendrons - An Introduction to the "Tree Lovers"

By LariAnn Garner (LariAnnNovember 29, 2008

The name "Philodendron" means literally "tree loving", which most likely refers to the tree hugging/climbing habit characteristic of many Philodendron species. However, not all members of this genus hug or climb trees, but many of them are eminently suitable as indoor or house plants. And if you are fortunate enough to live where you can grow these in your garden, well . . .

Gardening picture

Climb, creep or stand?

Philodendron is one of the largest genera in the family Araceae, a family which includes many of the world's favorite house or indoor plants. While one of the most common of the Philodendron species is the little vining one with the heart-shaped leaves, the genus is actually a large group of plants ranging from relatively small jewels to practically tree-sized monsters living in the tropical rain forest environment. Grown mainly for their foliage, many of these plants have proven to be durable under indoor conditions and as such have earned their place on the list of favorite house plants.

Philodendron plants can be grouped loosely into several types, based on the way that they grow. The ones that have the longest internodes, or sections of stem between leaves, are the climbers, and require some kind of totem or other support on which they can climb. These are propagated easily by cuttings including several nodes of the long stems. Another type is the creepers, which do not climb but rather grow along the surface of the soil. Their internodes are much shorter than those of the climbers and while they do not require anything to support vertical growth, they do require enough growing space to creep around in. The plant in the thumbnail picture above, right, Philodendron gloriosum, is an example of the creeper type. Thirdly comes the "tree" Philodendron, so named not because they climb, but because they have thick trunks and grow upright in a tree-like form.

And Everything in Between?

Philodendron pinnatifidum bloomThe three types I mentioned above are not totally exclusive, as intermediate types are found. For example, I know of at least one Philodendron that creeps until it reaches an upright surface, after which it begins to climb. Others have such short internodes that they are called "self-headers" because they tend to form a rosette of leaves. Some of the "tree" types will grow upright, but if near a tree or even a stalk of bamboo, their roots will stretch out and encircle it like a prehensile tail. One species I have, Philodendron mello-barretoanum, even uses some roots as tensioned guy wires to support the very heavy trunk. Stems can be smooth, green or colored, spotted, fuzzy or even thorny. And then you have the numerous hybrids that combine characteristics from several of the types into one plant!

Philodendron callosum bloomLeaf shapes and sizes are amazingly varied, ranging from simple green heart or lance-shaped leaves to gigantic twice or thrice pinnate ones. Color is present on some, ranging from dark, almost black, red to pink, orange, chartreuse, and different splotchy types of variegation. Veins can be white, silvery or green, and petioles can come in a variety of colors as well. Although most people that grow these plants do not grow them in expectation of blooms, some species can produce spectacular red, white, creamy or pink inflorescences in amongst the rich tropical foliage. The photo above, left is a bloom found on Philodendron pinnatifidum (a self-header) and the photo at right is from Philodendron callosum (a creeper). Both are plants I have been growing for years. When growing Philodendron under indoor conditions, blooming is much less likely, but if you have a greenhouse or can grow these in the ground outdoors, you can be surprised to see the blooms on occasion.

All in all, this genus of plants is wonderfully diverse and a valuable addition to any home decor, greenhouse, or garden where they can be grown outdoors. In future articles I will spotlight a few of the species you are likely to have the opportunity to obtain and grow.

Image Credit: LariAnn Garner

  About LariAnn Garner  
LariAnn GarnerLariAnn has been gardening and working with plants since her teenage years growing up in Maryland. Her intense interest in plants led her to college at the University of Florida, where she obtained her Bachelor's degree in Botany and Master of Agriculture in Plant Physiology. In the late 1970s she began hybridizing Alocasias, and that work has expanded to Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Caladiums as well. She lives in south Florida with her partner and son and is research director at Aroidia Research, her privately funded organization devoted to the study and breeding of new, hardier, and more interesting aroid plants.

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