Master Gardener Volunteer Program team member
Oh, that tropical look. Many homeowners want it, and often turn to the eye-catching pothos to create it. In doing so, they may unwittingly unleash a monster.
Pothos is a vining plant that has green and pale-yellow or cream-colored leaves that are waxy and heart-shaped. If it grows up a lattice or a tree, the stem will become thicker as it reaches greater heights, and the leaves will become larger as it gets better light and air circulation.
Botanically named Epipremnum pinnatum ‘Aureum,’ pothos is in the Araceae family of plants. You may know some of its relatives, like caladiums, peace lilies, giant taro, and Chinese evergreen (“hotel lobby plants”). But pothos, like arrowhead vine, elephant ear, monstera (Swiss-cheese plant or split-leaf philodendron) and some of its other relatives, poses a risk of invading natural and agricultural areas in Florida and across the southeastern United States.
What’s in a name?
Pothos is sometimes called “money plant,” “golden pothos,” or “devil’s ivy.” Regardless of the array of common, endearing names for pothos, the UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native Plants in Florida’s Natural Areas has a more somber designation for it: an invasive plant in south Florida and on the caution list for central Florida. The “caution” designation means that there is moderate risk of ecological and economic damage if it escapes into the wild in frost-free climates.
Likewise, the non-profit Florida Invasive Species Council (FISC), formerly the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council (FLEPPC), lists pothos as a “Category II” species in central and south Florida. That classification means the plant has not yet altered Florida plant communities, but may cause ecological damage to native plants.
The roots of pothos
Like many plants from southeast Asia, pothos was exported around the world because of its tropical look and how easy it is to grow, with little demand for water, light, or special care. It can be used in hanging baskets, or as a potted houseplant, with leaves about 3 or 4 inches long. When kept indoors, in its pot, it causes no harm.
But, the things that make pothos appealing as a houseplant also make it an environmental danger: fast growth, easy propagation, heat- and drought-tolerant. Outside the home, pothos can climb trees and engulf a canopy, thus blocking sunlight needed by the trees to grow. It climbs not with tendrils, but with aerial roots that form along the stem and attach themselves to tree bark. And as the plant climbs, it grows. The mild-mannered houseplant that had 4-inch leaves explodes into a huge vine with 18-inch leaves!
Unleashing a monster
Many folks set their houseplants outside for the summer. By autumn, the plant has spilled over its pot and rooted along the ground or on a shrub. It might already be climbing trees in the neighborhood. Any attempt to “clean it up” by snipping or hacking away leaves, stems and more can leave pruned pieces that will root and go wherever they want.
When not disposed of properly in sealed trash bags, broken or pruned pieces of pothos can easily root almost anywhere. That starts the monster growth cycle anew, and poses a threat to the ecology.
Pothos posers without the bite
Fortunately, there are a few plants that offer the tropical appeal of pothos without the potential impact.
Scindapsus pictus, commonly called satin pothos or silver vine, is a tropical vine with green and silver leaves. It thrives in filtered light and does well in hanging baskets. The word “pictus” in its name means painted, and is a reference to the look of silver markings on its leaves.
Two other plants to consider are both commonly called heart-leaf philodendrons: Philodendron hederaceum var. hederaceum, and Philodendron hederaceum var. oxycardium. They both have heart-shaped, glossy leaves, need little maintenance, are often grown in hanging baskets, and grow well in medium, indirect light.
If you are looking for a mild-mannered houseplant that continues to be mild-mannered, consider Dracaena marginata, sometimes called a dragon tree, or possibly a peace lily, Spathiphyllum x wallisii. Both can be taken outside, but also grow well as houseplants. But if “big” is what you want, take a look at a fiddleleaf fig, Ficus lyrata, which can grow to 50 feet tall and with leaves 15 inches long and 10 inches wide.
If you do have a pothos plant, please be responsible: protect the environment by keeping it inside so it can’t escape. And, perhaps, keep an eye out for a friendlier substitute.
- Florida Invasive Species Council (FISC): floridainvasivespecies.org
- UF/IFAS Assessment of Non-native Plants in Florida’s Natural Areas: Epipremnum pinnatum ‘Aureum’
- UF/IFAS Extension Charlotte County blog post: “Keep it in the pot – control your pothos“
- UF/IFAS “Gardening Solutions: Houseplants“
- UF/IFAS “Versatile Vines“
- UF/IFAS “Heart-leaf Philodendron“
About the Author
Ann Madden is a UF/IFAS Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Sarasota County. Originally from Pennsylvania, she is a graduating member of the Master Gardener Volunteer Class of 2014.