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How to Tell The Difference Between Pothos and Philodendron

Difference Between Pothos and Philodendron
Difference Between Pothos and Philodendron

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There’s an acceptable way and a right way of naming plants. I prefer using the accepted scientific names, and I realize there are several scientific synonyms for a single plant, so confusion is common, even among the so-called experts.

Plant identification can be challenging, especially if there are several similarities, like with the Pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and the heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum var. oxycardium) or the Pileas Peperomiodes and the 2022 Houseplant of the Year, the Peperomia polybotrya.

Let’s look at how to identify plants in general and then at the differences between the Pothos and the heartleaf Philodendron.

Table of Contents

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    Plant Identification Techniques

    Plant identification is important and can even be fun. We’ll cover the difference between Pothos and Philodendron later, but I’m referring to identifying plants, like those you come across on a walk.

    By asking the questions listed below, you will hopefully be on your way to successfully identify a plant of interest. If you get stuck, use your local county extension office for additional assistance.

    • Is the plant a monocot or dichotomous?
    • How are the leaves arranged?
    • Are the leaves simple or compound?
    • What is the shape of the leaf? Other leaf characteristics.
    • What do the flowers look like – shape, reproductive parts, inflorescence?
    • Stem characteristics?
    • What type of root system does the plant have – taproot, fibrous, rhizomes?
    Plant Leaf Differentiation chart
    Plant Leaf Differentiation

    Other information that may help identify plants would be:

    • Plant form or shape: Is the plant growing upright, or is it spreading? Is it round or oblong?
    • Plant size: Is the plant only a few inches tall, or is it 10, 20, 30 feet, or taller?
    • Where is the plant growing: Is the plant growing in your yard, a field, or a wooded area?
    • Site characteristics: Is the plant growing in wet or dry conditions or sunny or shady areas?
    • Other characteristics: What are the colors and sizes of any seeds or fruit? What is the fall color of the plant?
    • Bark characteristics: Is the bark smooth or has a rough or flaky texture? What is the color of the bark? Does the color change seasonally?

    Philodendron vs. Pothos: Identification

    Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)

    Pothos is an evergreen herbaceous vine or ground cover with simple, alternating leaves that range in size from ovate to cordate.

    The juvenile leaves are whole, while the mature ones are perforated and can grow 30 inches long.

    They have a glossy, brilliant green appearance with random variegation of lighter green, yellow, or white. It is a typical houseplant utilized as a landscaping plant in warmer climates.

    Heartleaf Philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum var. oxycardium)

    The evergreen herbaceous vine Heartleaf Philodendron has simple, heart-shaped leaves. The leaves are lustrous, cordate, and alternately oriented. The petioles are round.

    CharacteristicHeartleaf PhilodendronPothos
    Accepted Scientific NamePhilodendron hederaceum var. oxycardiumEpipremnum aureum
    Other NamesHeartleaf VineDevil’s Ivy; Devil’s Vine; Golden Pothos; Ivy Arum; Marble Queen; Taro Vine
    FamilyAraceaeAraceae
    Life CyclePerennialPerennial
    Leaf ShapeCordateOvate to Cordate
    Leaf TextureGlossyGlossy
    Leaf ArrangementAlternatelyAlternately
    Leaf TypeSimpleSimple
    Leaf AttachmentPetiolated – roundPetiolated – grooved
    VariegationGenerally not variegated, but the Brasil hybrid has light green variegation.Irregularly variegated with lighter green, yellow or white
    Juvenile LeavesEntireEntire
    Mature LeavesEntire – 2 to 4 inchesPerforated – can reach 30 inches

    Pothos and Philodendron – More Similarities than Differences

    Both P. hederaceum var. oxycardium and E. aureum belong to the Araceae (Arum) family of vines that grow up the sides of trees and other plants via aerial roots.

    Even though many people give them trellises or moss poles to climb, they’re frequently presented in hanging baskets and as trailing plants in the home.

    Except for variegated and neon cultivars, both the Philodendron and the Pothos have green, glossy leaves with a similar heart shape and grow around the same size in the home.

    The similarities end there, so let’s look at how to tell the difference between these two popular houseplants!

    CharacteristicDetail
    Plant Habit:Vine
    Life cycle:Perennial
    Sun Requirements:Partial or Dappled Shade
    Water Preferences:Drier side of damp soil
    Leaves:Evergreen
    Suitable Locations:Houseplant, groundcover in zones 9 to 11
    Resistances:Humidity tolerant
    Toxicity:Contain calcium oxalate crystals that affect the mouth and esophagus
    PropagationCuttings: Stem
    Containers:It needs excellent drainage in pots
    Miscellaneous:Epiphytic (can live on other plants as nonparasitic

    Pothos and Philodendron – Differences

    The general form and feel of the leaves is a differentiator between Pothos and Philodendrons. Pothos leaves are thicker, waxier, and have a somewhat raised or bumpy texture.

    There’s also an indentation midrib, and the overall design resembles a gardening shovel.

    On the other hand, a philodendron has thinner leaves with a smooth texture; you won’t feel the texture when gliding your fingers across the leaf blade like you would with a pothos.

    With a pronounced sinus (the area between the two rounded lobes where the leaf joins the petiole) and a more sharply tailed apex, the philodendron leaf form is likewise more heart-like (the point of the leaf).

    Pothos leaves can also be a little crooked compared to philodendron leaves.

    The Difference Between Pothos and Philodendron – Growth Habit

    Another approach to telling the two plants apart is to look at how they grow (aka growth habit). From a current leaf, a pothos leaf stretches and unfurls. In a thin, waxy, opaque sheath, a philodendron leaf extends on a bit of vine in a cataphyll.

    A cataphyll is a small, modified leaf that will continue to photosynthesize until it turns brown and papery, at which point it will fall off on its own.

    Philodendron Leaf Stuck in its Cataphylls
    Philodendron Leaf Stuck in its Cataphylls

    Cataphylls are a distinguishing trait of philodendrons, so if you’re having difficulties distinguishing between the leaf shapes we discussed earlier, this is the feature to look for. I’ve also noticed that fresh philodendron leaves have a pink or brownish tint, which darkens to their natural color with maturity.

    The leaves of the Pothos plant unfurl in a lighter hue than the rest of the plant.

    The Difference Between Pothos and Philodendron – Air Roots and Stems

    Pothos Aerial Roots
    Pothos Aerial Roots

    I will bring you a few more qualities to look for because I’m very detailed and meticulous about plants! Pothos stems are thicker than Philodendron stems and are nearly the same color as the leaves.

    Philodendron stems are typically greenish-brown, with fresh, expanded stems near the bottom being an orangey-brown color.

    Pothos and Philodendrons use aerial (air) roots to climb and take nutrients and moisture from the air or attach to host plants.

    Aerial roots of Pothos are thick nubs with only one root emerging from each node. Philodendron aerial roots are thin and wiry and can grow in clusters of two to six.

    When recognizing a plant, it’s best to start with a broad view of the entire plant and then “zoom in” to examine the individual parts and how they work together. Once you know how to identify a plant, it’s easy-peezy.

    Using Technology for Plant Identification

    Plant identification is motivated by various factors: curiosity about the world around us, a desire or need to manage regions such as gardens, agricultural fields, restored ecosystems, nature preserves, and so on.

    Plants are the backbone of food webs, and their functioning is linked to our understanding of ecosystems.

    Plant identification has always been a question of familiarity, knowledge passed down through mentorship by family or friends, or something taught in school.

    There are now several smartphone apps available to assist with plant identification. Being able to teach machines, i.e., machine learning (ML), may sound ominous to the uninformed, but it’s relatively simple.

    Thousands of photos of a plant in different conditions are uploaded into a program, and the process is repeated for different plants until a comprehensive database exists.

    As the app identifies plants, feedback is provided for corrections. These corrections are then memorized for future reference.

    Michigan State University (MSU) recently (2018 to 2021) evaluated several of these apps. Their findings are listed below:

    The top-performing app in the 2021 evaluation outlined below was PictureThis, with 67% of the suggested identifications being correct (table below).

    Following this lead, there was a cluster of three apps with about 50% accuracy: PlantNetPlant Story, and LeafSnap.

    These top four apps displayed 50% accuracy for flowering broadleaf ornamentals and broadleaf weeds. Surprisingly, the 2020-second runner-up, iNaturalist, came in fifth place with about 30% accuracy.

    In Closing

    I think learning the skills to identify plants provides first-hand knowledge and an intimate relationship with your plants. Knowing their preferences, quirks, and uniqueness allows you to better care for them.

    The Pothos (Epipremnum aureum) and the heart leaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum var. oxycardium) are very similar.

    The two differences may be falling in the 20% the best apps generally get wrong. Just think of it; you’re smarter than Artificial Intelligence.

    I think this article is the web’s definitive guide to establishing if your plant is a Pothos or a Philodendron.

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