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Pothos & philodendron: What's the difference?

December 09, 2021 3 min read

Pothos and philodendron

We've all been there. We take home a friendly, tropical trailing plant thinking we'll be tending to a philodendron, only to discover months later that they are actually a pothos. Read on for how to tell these botanical doppelgängers apart once and for all.

What is a 'pothos'?

When gardeners talk about pothos, they usually refer to the species Epipremnum aureum Sandra Martins

With their heart-shaped leaves, trailing habits, and similar care needs, it's easy to confuse the philodendron with the pothos plant. But the muddle even extends to their names. The terminology here is a mine-field and its no surprise that gardeners, and even garden stockists, confuse the two.

Gardeners use the term pothos to refer to the species Epipremnum aureum and all its colorful varieties, such as the snow queen pothos. The gardener's pothos belongs to the genus Epipremnum. So far so simple. 

Plant biologists use the term pothos to refer to a whole genus of plants. Both Epipremnum (the genus that the gardener's pothos belongs to) and the biologists' Pothos are genera that belong to the wider Araceae family.This family contains a total of 114 genera and about 3750 known species!! This means that the gardener's pothos species (Epipremnum aureum) is only very distantly related to the biologist's pothos genus

In this article, we'll be comparing the gardener's pothos species to the gardener's philodendron. First for some background on the philodendron, which presents some terminological problems of its own....

What is a 'philodendron'?

The philodendron scandans is the species that gardeners are usually referring to as 'philodendron'. It is only one of around 489 known species in the philodendron genus and it's the one that most closely resembles the pothos. Severin Candrian

For biologists, 'philodendron' refers to a whole genus containing 489 species - of these, only a few are commonly cultivated indoors. Gardeners, however, use the term philodendron to mean something different. For convenience sake, they collapse the diverse range of houseplant species from the philodendron genus into the term 'philodendron'.

Philodendron melanochrysum is one species in the philodendron genus that you definitely won't mistake for a pothos. Severin Candrian

Some houseplant species in the philodendron genus look very distinctive. For example, take a look at the Philodendron selloum with its leaves cut into serrated segments, or the languorous Philodendron Melanochrysum. There can be no confusion between these and the pothos (epipremnum aureum). However, one species in the Philodendron genus look very similar to the gardener's pothos. The plot thickens....

Philodendron scandans: the pothos imposter

Philodendron scandans is the species that people confuse with pothos (Epipremnum aureum). With its green foliage, heart-shaped leaves, and its similar size, they are the doppelgängers fo the plant world, even though they come from two different plant families. Below are some surefire ways to tell them apart.

Is it a philodendron or a pothos? 

Philodendron scandans have the papery sheaths

If you see brown, dried, papery sheaths covering new leaves this is a clear sign you have a philodendron. These sheaths are called 'cataphylls' and pothos do not have them. 

Philodendron scandans have multiple aerial roots at their nodes

The pothos will only have one aerial root at each node while philodendrons will have several. This is another very easy way to tell them apart. 

Philodendron scandans have a thinner leaf texture than the pothos

This is a more subtle distinguisher and you might need a pothos side by side with a philodendron to really see the difference. Philodendron have thinner leaves while pothos has glossier, thicker ones. 

Another leaf marker is that the philodendron's leaf will curve inwards where it meets the stem. The pothos leaf remains flat where it meets the stem. 

Which should you get? 

Both Philodendron scandans and Epipremnum aureum are very easy to care for. They don't need high light levels and can thrive on a bit of neglect. Confusing them at the garden store is not of much consequence. In either case, you'll be getting a hardy houseplant that adapts to pretty much any indoor situation. 

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