Deb Babcock: Philodendron a hardy indoor plant

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

If you’re looking for a hardy houseplant, philodendron is king as far as I’m concerned. Not being a houseplant person but loving some fresh greenery in the house, I purchased a philodendron many years ago when we first moved into our home in Routt County.

Sometimes I forget to water it for weeks at a time; sometimes I tend to make up for lost time by flooding it with water only to neglect it again. And 13 years later, it still is stunning with new growth and fresh leaves unfurling as I write this article.

There are about 900 species of philodendron — a testament to its popularity as a house plant. They come in climbing vine varieties and tree-like potted plants with leaves in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors.

Native to the rain forests of Mexico, it makes a beautiful and graceful addition to most any room. Its name comes from the Greek word philo, or love, and dendron, meaning tree. This plant first was collected in the wilds of Martinique and St. Thomas as early as 1644, and new species of the plant continued to be found in the West Indies and South America throughout the 1700s and into 1800s until it overwhelmed the genus Arum and was moved to its own classification in the mid-1800s.

The leaves are large and imposing, usually with deeply cut finger-like shapes at the end of long stems or stalks. One thing I find unusual about philodendrons is their root systems. They have aerial and subterranean roots. Every so often, I’ll look at the plant in my house and find that a long, root about the thickness of an electrical cord has snaked way out of the pot and is trailing on the floor. If this plant was in an outdoor environment, the root would embed itself in the soil or wrap around a nearby tree and begin taking nutrients from the air and garden soil. Indoors, it is recommended that when aerial roots form, that you push them into the soil in the pot where they can help the plant take in more water and nutrients. Or if they are a bit much to work with (mine often are 6 to 8 feet long when I notice them trailing outside the pot), I just cut it off and throw it away.

You can propagate this plant by taking a stem cutting and placing it in a planting medium such as peat, perlite or vermiculite. The stems should have at least two joints, and once they root in about four or five weeks, you can transfer them into a pot with regular potting soil.

Philodendrons prefer bright light, though they will survive in darker areas of your home. Dust on the leaves can be a problem here in the windy West, so you occasionally will need to use a damp cloth to wipe the leaves clean.

This plant will benefit from a weak fertilizer solution every few weeks. They generally are happiest when the roots are slightly (but not too) crowded in the pot. Be sure to have well-drained soil with a reservoir for catching excess water that flows through when you water the plant since they do not like to have their roots sitting in waterlogged soil.

Philodendrons do not have many pest problems and tend to grow under even the harshest of conditions, which I can attest to. It’s a great houseplant for everyone who wants easy-to-care-for indoor greenery.

Deb Babcock is a volunteer master gardener through the Routt County CSU Extension. Call 970-879-0825 or email csumgprogram@co.routt.co.us for more information.

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