Do you ever get mixed up when trying to figure out whether your plant is a pothos or a philodendron? I have been stumped myself in the past. Does it really matter? Not really. They essentially need the same care so it isn’t all that important, but it is nice to know how to tell the difference. Below is a heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum ‘Lemon Lime’ on the left and a pothos (Epipremnum aureum) on the right.
Both plants are in the same family, which is the arum or aroid family, called Araceae. Though they are in the same family, they each are in a different genus. Heartleaf philodendron is a philodendron and the pothos is an epipremnum. There are some differences that help identify the two plants. One thing that is a bit different is the shape of the leaves. The philodendron is more heart-shaped and flat than the pothos. The pothos bends slightly at the midrib, making it more three-dimensional.
As you can see, the drip tip or tip of the leaf is more pointed on the philodendron than the pothos. The drip tip is a characteristic of a leaf that allows the rain to run off the leaves better in the tropical rain forests. Some aroids have more pronounced ones than others.
Check the petiole
The petiole or the part of the leaf attaching the leaf to the stem of the plant is different on the two plants. The pothos petiole on the right below is grooved and as it ages, the edges become papery and brown. The philodendron petiole is round as you can see on the left below. (Excuse my band-aid.)
What is a cataphyll?
The most distinguishing feature that sets the two plants apart is the presence of cataphylls which are, according to Merriam-Webster, “a rudimentary scalelike leaf (as a bud scale) that precedes the foliage leaves of a plant”. In the pictures below, you can see the cataphyll on the philodendron. The far left picture is a new cataphyll that has just done its job by protecting the unfurling new leaf and allowing it to come out unharmed. The middle picture shows the dead, dried-up cataphylls that will eventually fall off (all over the floor). The far-right picture is the pothos that doesn’t have the cataphylls. The leaf emerges from the petiole and the edges that were protecting the leaf, stay on the plant and those are the brown edges you see.
Check the aerial roots
The aerial roots are also a clue to the identification of the plant. On the pothos (left) the aerial roots are thicker than the philodendron’s as you can see below. Though they are just emerging on the pothos, you can see how thick they are. I’ll try to find a better picture and update it later.
Not a pothos or a philodendron
Though the plant below is called a silver satin pothos, it is not a pothos. It is a scindapsus, so a different genus, but still in the same family of aroids. That’s all I’m going to say about that plant for now.
I hope this helps you identify your pothos or philodendron. Did you know the difference?
Have a great week, plant friends!