Thursday, November 12, 2009

In Praise of Pothos

The first indoor plants I can remember belonged to my grandmother. After my parents separated, my mother and I lived with my grandparents from when I was about two until I was 13. Nana had a Begonia or two, some sort of palm, a Syngonium she referred to as “elephant ears” and some other plants I don’t remember well enough to identify. But what she had the most of was Epipremnum aureum, most commonly referred to as “golden pothos.” My grandmother, like many people, called these “Philodendrons” even though they aren’t. (If you want to be able to tell the difference, check out this post at Plants are the Strangest People.) She shared cuttings with me when I first showed interest in houseplants as a child, and it has been rare that I haven’t had at least one pothos in my collection since then.

Even so, there was a brief period in my plant-growing life when I thought of pothos as being a bit too common. This was probably a result of seeing too many lackluster, somewhat neglected plants. What snapped me out of this Epipremnum ennui was coming across a bunch of healthy, strongly variegated plants on display in a plant shop. (This was the last store I remember seeing that was totally devoted to selling houseplants. While such stores were not uncommon in the 1970s, they were almost unheard of in 1991, when this one went out of business.) Seeing pothos with fresh eyes, I came to appreciate their versatility and beauty once again.

I far prefer pothos to heart-leaf Philodendrons (P. hederaceum) which are also nice, but common plants. I find pothos more forgiving of various less-than-optimum conditions, including low light levels, erratic watering and getting chilled. (Pothos plants don’t like those things, but I think they bounce back better if exposed to them.) In my experience, cuttings from Pothos roots faster, and the plants produced from the cuttings seem to become more vigorous sooner. It has also been my experience that if you don’t let a Philo climb, its new leaves get smaller and smaller, even in good light. While pothos leaves tend to be larger if they are allowed to either climb or just grow horizontally on a surface, they also maintain a decent size if grown as a hanging plant.

So pothos is easy to care for, even in adverse situations. That is why they seem to be the hanging plant of choice in public spaces. Two years ago, I worked for a couple of months as a plant care technician for a large interiorscape company. For a variety of reasons, this job did not work out for me, but I did learn a few things, especially about the popularity and durability of pothos as an office plant. It was a rare account on my route that didn’t have at least one pothos, and most had several. A couple of the larger companies had hundreds of them. By contrast, there were exactly three Philodendron hederaceum plants on my entire route. I learned that pothos responds much better to a good pruning than I had imagined. It will fill out, and produce more than one growing point, instead of just restarting the vine from the edge of the cut stem. I also learned that the yellowing of pothos leaves can be caused by over watering, but just as frequently, yellowed leaves will be the result of allowing a plant to go dry enough to wilt. Even if this wilting is followed by a good watering, more than a few of the leaves will yellow, rather than recover. I do admit that I’ve never seen a Philo respond that way, so there is a point in their favor.

Epipremnum aureum varieties I own:

Golden Pothos: This is the one most often grown, and the most durable. Grown in very low-light, the variegation becomes more muted, but does not disappear altogether. The green coloring also loses some of its richness. This is the plant most likely to be seen as boring, but the variegation on a plant grown in good light is a thing of beauty.
Epipremnum aureum

Neon Pothos: I grew these from cuttings obtained during the above-mentioned foray into professional plant care. (If a plant needed pruning, the cuttings, which, at the end of the day, could number in the thousands, were just thrown away. So if a tech wanted to, he/she could keep a few to propagate. We also gave them away to any office worker who asked, as long as they were healthy and pest-free. ) This is a variety that I expected to be fussy. Not so; I find it to be a vigorous grower. Too much direct sun will cause it to have a bleached yellow appearance, while strong but indirect lighting brings out the pretty chartreuse tones. I have noticed that the cuttings can be a bit harder to root than those of the other pothos varieties, with the stems occasionally rotting before roots can form.

Epipremnum aureum 'Neon'

Marble Queen: Probably my favorite, as I am especially fond of plants with white variegation in general. It does grow a bit more slowly than golden pothos and seems more susceptible to cold damage and to fungal diseases.

Epipremnum aureum ‘Marble Queen’
This is a close-up of the leaves of my larger plant.

My smaller Epipremnum aureum ‘Marble Queen’
You can see an all-green shoot on the left.

Jade Pothos: In my experience, this is not the result of a golden pothos grown in insufficient light, as some believe. As mentioned above, such plants are more likely to become muted and dull than to achieve the rich, unvariegated dark-green color characteristic of this plant. Rather, jade pothos seems to be derived from Epipremnum aureum 'Marble Queen,' which is inclined to put out all-green shoots from time to time. That is how I obtained my plant, pictured below. I cut back and propagated any all-green shoots that developed on my two Marble Queens. These shoots didn’t seem to be a result of low light, since the plants in question are in sufficient light, and put out plenty of variegated shoots. Not only that, but the Jade is in the same or better light, and it remains all green. If the green color was the result of a light issue, I’d expect to see some variegation recur when the light is increased. The all-green plant also grows much more quickly and robustly than its variegated parents, which is to be expected.

Epipremnum aureum 'Jade Pothos'

Epipremnum ‘N’Joy’: When I first saw this new cultivar, I thought it would be fussy and slow growing, since in my opinion, the variegation and bumpy leaf texture resembles a viral mutation not unlike that of Spathiphyllum ‘Domino,’ the variegated peace lily. Well, 'N'Joy' does grow slightly more slowly than golden pothos, but it is by no means fussy. I’ve had this plant since early summer 2009. If it keeps going like it has been, it may replace marble queen as my favorite.

Two views of Epipremnum 'N' Joy': the whole plant and a closer shot of the leaves


mr_subjunctive said...

You and I have very different pothos experiences. Mine, historically, do fine until I try moving them into a bigger pot (not hugely bigger, and I'm using good soil and everything), at which point some of the individual vines fall out and refuse to be reburied, others start to go black from the base up, and the whole thing falls to pieces for no obvious reason. It's not like I'm transplanting them rougher than I do anything else. This also happens when I try rooting cuttings in water: everything goes fine until I plant them, and then I either can't keep them under the soil or they go black and die or (sometimes) both. 'Neon' is particularly bad about this. 'N'Joy' actually has survived a transplanting for me once, so I like it best now.

The husband, incidentally, can grow pothos just fine, and used to before we moved in together. So it's something specific to me. Probably something water-related.

If you'll teach me how to water pothos, I'll send you some scale-free Nematanthus cuttings in the spring. Deal?

Karen715 said...

Mr_S: I really don't know what to tell you about the watering, since I water Epipremnum pretty much the same way I water everything but succulents. I look at the plant and think, "Hmm, I last watered you a week or so ago. Let me feel your soil." ::sticks finger in pot:: "Okay, you feel rather dry. Here's some water." Since I water in place rather than taking things to the sink/tub/whatever, I watch to see how much comes out the drainage holes into the saucer. I stop watering before the saucer is in danger of overflowing. Then I leave the plant alone for a while. If there is still water in the saucer an hour later, I drain it, but that almost never happens. It is usually reabsorbed. (By the way, I don't actually water plants singly--I have fewer than half the plants that you do, but if I just tended to one plant at a time, I still would never get anything else done. I water by geographic location: I feel a few representative plants in the bedroom window shelves, lets say. If they are dry, I water everything in the bedroom, though I might skip the Sansevierias a time or two.It works out okay.)

I probably mentioned in a comment on one of your posts that I always water in place and that I seldom leach anything. I know that neglecting to do this is a poor cultural practice, but it works for me.

As for keeping newly potted cuttings (or old stems that want to make a break for it)in the soil, I use hair pins. (The thin, open U-shaped ones, not bobby pins.) I just pin the wayward stems into the soil. Sometimes it takes a few pins per stem. (This also works excellently for stem cuttings of Sedum morganianum, which also have a tendency unpot themselves.