My Pothos is an Imposter


There was a certain irony to me being assaulted by a Pothos. I was shopping at a garden center in southwest Michigan, and was zoned in to my usual swivel-headed focus when it happened. If I hadn't been moving so slowly because of the crowded space, I might have caused a scene. As it was, my flailing, hornet-in-my-hair moves did attract a few looks.

Philodendron 'Burle Marx Fantasy' before I butchered it. 
My niece JJ had been asking me about growing this ubiquitous houseplant. Her grandfather had given her a healthy specimen in a hanging pot. She decided to try to propagate some new plants from it, so I shared a method I've used for other plants somewhere in my distant past. Full disclaimer: I don't really like pothos (whose botanical name is Epipremnum aureum). It's just that they often are draped throughout someone's sunless office, a couple of feet of stem between each sagging leaf. It's not their fault; I just can't get the image out of my head whenever I hear or see the plant's name.

I've always had more success propagating anything by cutting a stem, dipping it in rooting hormone (in most cases), and poking it into a airy soil mixture. Over the years, I've found that a plant whose roots were grown in water have a hard time acclimating to soil. And if you're not incredibly careful, you'll lose several roots as it's settled into the soil.

In a prime example of having so many plants I can't keep their names straight, I  snapped a photo of a plant I thought was a Pothos (Yes, I wondered briefly how one had gotten into my house.) and illustrated cutting segments that could be used for propagation. It wasn't until today that I realized it wasn't a Pothos but a Philodendron called 'Burle Marx Fantasy'.

If I'd known at the time what it was, and how slowly this plant grows, I would not have been so cavalier about carving it up. In researching the best practices for propagating both plants, I came across a great article about the differences betwen the two from the University of Illinois Extension.

That was several weeks ago and both JJ and I failed in our attempts to grow cuttings. Besides discovering how I just might be collecting too many plants to keep them straight, I realized how important heat is to successful root growth in most plants. And that is especially true, it seems, with both pothos and Philodendron.

I've been using the same jar of rooting hormone made by Fertilome for about 10 years. You need so little of it, it just lasts that long. I probably should have told JJ she needed a heat mat and some rooting hormone. But I wanted to keep it simple, and I didn't want to price a teenager out of a great hobby. But I underestimated her drive to grow plants. When she told me she's gotten a heat mat, I told her she should get some Vermiculite or Perlite to mix with a bit of soil in which to start cuttings.

JJ thinks I'm teaching her about plants, but she's teaching me as well. Recommending a soil "lightener" for cuttings made me look up the difference between Vermiculite and Perlite. Basically, perlite has better drainage ability, while vermiculite holds moisture like a sponge.

Both vermiculite and perlite are mined minerals that are heat-treated for use in aerating soils. Vermiculite has distinct layers (think puff pastry, only compressed), which allows for air and moisture to be absorbed. Perlite is more like mini moonstones, and it also retains moisture but excess water quickly drains away.

JJ's had success with one of the pothos cuttings she's rooted in water! She potted it yesterday in a mixture of soil and Perlite and has put it on her heat mat. I'm pretty sure she has a natural way with plants, a talent that requires attention to detail and common sense as well as the patience to try, try again.

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