Use indoor time this winter to learn about basic plant care. A philodendron will be your best guinea pig. It’s a common saying that you can’t kill a philodendron. But you can. How often do we see a struggling philodendron at the dry cleaners, in a dim corner of the dentist’s waiting room, or (perish the thought!) even on our own windowsills? That plant is struggling not because it is fussy or demanding but because its most basic needs have not been met.
The philodendron is a wonderful learning tool for newbie plant collectors because it will send out recognizable signals about its happiness or discontent before it is too late. It will respond well to the basic techniques of plant care and will reward just a little attention with healthy foliage and good form.
As with all plants, the best approach to care is to duplicate the plant’s native condition in the wild as closely as possible. The simple heartleaf philodendron, P. scandens, is a good example of a tropical rainforest plant, growing either on the forest floor or twining its way up a tree toward the light but under the canopy.
We, therefore, know that it prefers filtered bright light or a steady medium light, but not full sunlight. Although in the wild it thrives on high humidity, today’s cultivars have evolved to tolerate fairly dry indoor air.
Philodendrons like warm household temperatures, above 70 degrees, with a 10-degree drop at night. They like to dry out a little between waterings and enjoy a regular diet of feedings during their growing periods.
Philodendrons often are placed in light that is much too dim because people think they like it that way. But remember that rainforest canopy, with filtered bright light. Without enough light, the philodendron will become stemmy, scraggly and scrawny.
Its leaves will turn yellow if over watered, and they will brown and fall off if under watered. The good news is that the plant will send these signals before it is too late to correct the problems, and they are easily corrected.
The name philodendron evolves from the Greek and means “lover of trees,” thereby describing the vining type that races up tree trunks in the jungles of Central and South America and some Caribbean islands. This type is one of the world’s most commonly grown houseplants, but here we encounter another issue.
A vine wants to climb, up or around or on something. Left on its own in a pot, and especially a hanging pot, the vining stem will reach out for something to grab hold of. If it doesn’t find anything, it will just continue to grow in midair, getting stemmy and leggy as it hunts for support. A few little trailers are fine and can be charming, but that’s enough.
Prune the plant back, making your cuts just below the nodes, so that bushier growth will occur and the plant’s form will be visually pleasing. Of course, you can give the vine something to climb on, a hoop or a trellis, or a piece of wood set into the pot as a backdrop. Given good growing conditions, this vine will really take off, but even growing as a vine it will be more attractive if it is pruned back often.
This plant easily lends itself to learning a basic propagation technique. As the stem grows, tiny aerial roots are produced often. They can be trained to cling to the support device or just be tucked back into the soil of the pot where they will take hold and produce new little plantlets.
We can help them do this by wounding the stems slightly where they touch the surface and fastening them down with hairpins or paper clips opened up to make little hoops. Keep the soil surface moist. That wounded spot should produce roots and eventually new little plants just in time to go out on the deck for the summer.