Know your plants: how to tell the difference between a philodendron and a pothos

Philodendron hederaceum var. oxycardium  (L) and  Epipremnum aureum  (R)

Philodendron hederaceum var. oxycardium (L) and Epipremnum aureum (R)

If you've read my blog before or perused my Instagram, you might be aware that I'm very passionate about taxonomy and plant identification! One of the most common mistakes I see beginner plant parents make is conflating a heart leaf philodendron (botanical name Philodendron hederaceum var. oxycardium) and a pothos (Epipremnum aureum). [I’m going to refer to each by their common name because it’s simply easier.]  It's true that they look similar upon first glance, but when you look a little closer, there are a world of differences! It's also true that the two plants have relatively the same care, although I find the philodendron to be less drought tolerant and in need of more bright light in order to grow well. Nonetheless, I wanted to go over the differences and similarities so that you can be confident in your plant indentifcation. Expect more in a series of "Know Your Plants" posts! 

First, let's look at how the philodendron and pothos are similar: Both P. hederaceum var. oxycardium and E. aureum are in the same family Araceae and are both climbers in the wild. They will naturally grow up the sides of trees and other plants, buildings, telephone poles... whatever they can cling to with their aerial roots and travel upwards on. In the home, they're each often displayed in hanging baskets and as trailing plants, even though many people give them trellises or moss poles to climb as well. The philodendron and pothos both have green, glossy leaves (except for the variegated and neon cultivars) that are a similar heart shape and tend to grow about the same size in the home (usually around the size of an adult's palm). That's about where the similarities end, so let's breakdown how to spot the all the differences between these two popular houseplants!

 

LEAF SHAPE + TEXTURE

Pothos leaf up close.

Pothos leaf up close.

Philodendron leaf up close. See the differences? 

Philodendron leaf up close. See the differences? 

A few tell-tale differences between pothos and philodendrons are the overall shape and texture of the leaves. A pothos (top photo) has leaves with a thicker, waxy feel and slightly raised/bumpy texture to the leaves. There is also an obviously indented midrib and the shape tends to look something like a gardening spade. A philodendron, on the other hand (bottom photo), has thinner leaves with a smooth texture - when you glide your fingers across the leaf blade, you won't feel the texture like you do with a pothos. The philodendron leaf shape is also more heart-like, with a prominent sinus (the space between the two rounded lobes where the leaf meets the petiole) and a more dramatically tailed apex (the point of the leaf). Pothos leaves can sometimes be a bit more asymmetrical than philodendron leaves, too. 

 

GROWTH HABIT + NEW FOLIAGE

A new pothos leaf unfurling. Note the lack of cataphyll. 

A new pothos leaf unfurling. Note the lack of cataphyll. 

See those papery, off-white sheaths? Those are cataphylls!

See those papery, off-white sheaths? Those are cataphylls!

Other ways to distinguish the two plants are by looking at how it grows (aka growth habit). A pothos leaf extends and unfurls from a current leaf. A philodendron leaf extends on a bit of vine in a cataphyll, which is a thin, waxy, opaque sheath. A cataphyll is essentially a small, modified leaf and will continue to photosynthesize until it becomes brown and papery, and falls off on it's own. Cataphylls are a distinct attribute of philodendrons, so if you're having trouble discerning between leaf shapes that we talked about above, this is a go-to feature to look for. I have also found that new leaves on a philodendron have a pink or brownish tint, and will darken to its true color with a bit of maturity. Pothos leaves unfurl simply a lighter shade than the rest of the plant! 

AIR ROOTS + STEMS

Aerial roots that are more stubby. Note there is 

Aerial roots that are more stubby. Note there is 

Check out those aerial roots and cataphylls!

Check out those aerial roots and cataphylls!

Because I'm a super detailed and meticulous person when it comes to plants (I'm definitely not like that in all aspects of my life!), I'm going to point out a few more features to look for! Stems on pothos are thicker than that of a philodendron, and are relatively the same color as the leaves. Philodendron stems are often a green-ish brown, and fresh, extended stems near the bottom are an orangey-brown (see photo above). Pothos and philodendrons both have aerial (air) roots that are used to climb and absorb nutrients and moisture from the air. Pothos aerial roots are thick nubs, with just one root extending from a node. Philodendron aerial roots are can grow in groups (sometimes 2 to 6) and are thin and spindly. 

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Okay, can you tell the difference now?! If you look at both of these photos, can you see the distinct different features? When identifying a plant, it's best to look at a wide view of the plant as a whole and then "zoom in" to look at all the different parts and how they fit together. Once you know how to ID a plant, it becomes a snap!