To the beginner houseplant owner, Pothos and Philodendron plants can be easy to confuse with one another. While there’s a difference between a Pothos and a heart leaf Philodendron, they’re also closely related. So, It’s important to properly identify your houseplants, so that you can find the correct information to help you provide ideal growing conditions.
Although the two plants do have a slightly similar appearance, there are some key differences which will make telling them apart much more obvious. In addition to differences in their looks, these two plants do also require slightly different growing conditions as well.
In this article we will discuss the differences between Pothos and Heartleaf Philodendron houseplants, so you can make sure that your plant will thrive.
Pothos vs Philodendron at a glance
The best ways to tell Pothos and Philodendrons apart is by overall shape and texture of the leaves. Pothos plants have thick, glossy, sometimes variegated leaves with a deeply grooved petiole. Heartleaf Philodendron leaves will be more matte, elongated, and heart-shaped, with a smooth petiole.
New growth on a Philodendron is also likely to be a completely different colour and protected by their distinctive cataphylls. Finally, Pothos plants have solitary, stubby, aerial roots as opposed to the more stringy and clustered aerial roots of a Philodendron.
Pothos Vs Philodendron Overview
While Pothos and Philodendron plants belong to the same family, Araceae, they do not share a genus. This is why it isn’t actually as difficult to tell them apart as you may think.
Pothos are among the most popular of all houseplants. They can go by many names, including: Devil’s Ivy, Hunter’s Robe, Money Plant, Taro Vine, and Silver Vine. These names are all referring to the same plant, which is Epipremnum aureum.
Philodendron is the name of an extensive and diverse genus of plants, of which Philodendron hederaceum belongs. Also known as the Heartleaf Philodendron, this is the most common Philodendron to be confused with a Pothos due to similarities in their appearance.
Both of these plants are considered to be low maintenance, climbing houseplants. They each feature heart-shaped green or variegated leaves on vines, and have similar care requirements.
Adding to the confusion, sometimes retailers will even mislabel these plants in the store. This
Difference in Care Requirements
Although both plants are considered to be low maintenance houseplants, there are some slight differences in how they would each prefer to be treated in ideal conditions.
The common name of Devil’s Ivy has been given to the Pothos plant because it is notoriously hard to kill. These plants can adapt to survive in almost any conditions; from dry soil in low light, to a bowl of water in bright sunlight.
Pothos plants can tolerate a small amount of direct sunlight without burning, unlike the Philodendron. However, they will suffer if placed in bright direct light all day long. They are also more drought tolerant than Philodendron plants are.
Their ideal environment would be bright, indirect sunlight with regular watering. Since a Pothos does prefer indirect light, they tend to lose their variegation in the shade as they try to maintain more chlorophyll in the leaves. The more sunlight they recieve, the more variegation will appear.
A Heartleaf Philodendron is better adapted for thriving in much lower light conditions than Pothos are. As a result, they do not need to lessen their variegation as much as Pothos do in the shade.
Philodendrons will burn quite easily if placed in direct light, however. They prefer low light conditions, with regular watering. They are also more tolerant to colder temperatures than Pothos.
5 Ways To Tell The Difference Between A Philodendron And A Pothos
Although at first glance these two plants may look alike, there are a few tell-tale differences in the leaves which make it easy for an informed plant owner to tell them apart.
1: Overall Shape Of The Leaves
The first place to look when you are trying to identify if a vine is a Pothos or a Philodendron is at the shape of the leaves.
The leaves of a Heartshaped Philodendron typically have a more rounded and obvious heart-shape at the top, with a longer and more skinny spout-like tip. On the other hand, pothos leaves are usually less uniform in shape, with a shorter and less pointed tip.
Pothos leaves also have a well defined, deep ridge down the centre of the leaf due to their thick and ridged petiole. Philodendrons lack this ridge, featuring a more flat petiole.
2: Texture Of The Leaves
The leaves of Pothos plants are shiny, appearing to have almost a waxed-like finish. This shiny finish creates a subtle waxy glow as the leaves reflect the sunlight.
Their leaves are also thicker, with the top being slightly raised/bumpy and having some more texture than the underside.
Philodendron leaves on the other hand, are much softer than the Pothos. They have a smooth matte finish, which does a better job at absorbing light.
3: Growth Habits And New Foliage
Another way to distinguish between the two plants is by observing their growth habits. This describes the different ways in which they each sprout new foliage.
A new Pothos leaf will uncurl itself from the current last leaf on the vine. A new Philodendron leaf however, extends on a bit of the vine protected by a cataphyll.
The cataphyll is basically a small modified leaf, which acts as a thin, waxy, protective layer over the delicate new leaf as it forms. This is a distinct Philodendron trait, so if you’re still unsure after examining the leaf shape, this is where you should look next.
The cataphyll will continue to photosynthesize around the new leaf helping it to thrive, until the new leaf is ready to grow on its own. At this point, the cataphyll will become brown and papery, eventually falling off on its own.
New growth on Philodendron plants can also help in identification, because it tends to be a slightly different colour than the rest of the plant. New leaves will often display a more pink or brownish tint, darkening to their true colour with maturity.
Pothos plants will not be so fancy with their new foliage. New leaves may uncurl a slightly lighter green colour than the rest of the leaves, quickly changing to match with maturity. They will not, however, emerge a completely different colour.
4: Aerial Roots And Stems
Both Pothos and Philodendron plants will form aerial (air) roots, which are able to absorb moisture and nutrients, while supporting and anchoring the plants as they climb.
These aerial roots will grow from the nodes of the plant, acting as little energy powerhouses within the vine stem, pulling moisture and nutrients out of the air to feed new growth.
Pothos aerial roots will appear as thick black nubs, with only one per node. These can be quite aggressive, attaching to any rough surface and sometimes leaving black marks on walls or furniture if removed. Be sure the keep your plant contained, unless you want it to climb.
Philodendron aerial roots are thinner and more stringy, occurring in clusters. These are more likely to resemble an above-ground root system.
Aside from the aerial roots, Pothos and Philodendron stems have some other differences as well.
Stems on Pothos plants are thicker than that of a Philodendron, usually appearing to be relatively the same colour as the leaves. Whereas Philodendron stems are slightly more dainty looking, with a brownish-orange colour.
5: The Petiole
The petiole is the short stem which attaches the leaf to the main vine stem of the plant.
The petiole on a Pothos plant is thicker than that of the Philodendrons, with the same or just slightly lighter green colour than the rest of the foliage. This leads to the deeply grooved ridge which runs parallel with the leaf stem.
On Philodendron plants, the petiole is more round and smooth down the entire length and into the leaf. Following suit with the new growth, it will often appear a more brownish colour than the leaves as well.
Pothos and Philodendron Variations
It can be easy to get confused by the many different variations of these two plants. While both species do have multiple variations of variegated cultivars, Pothos variations are more abundant.
Pothos plants come in many different colors and variegations, while leaf shape and growth habits will remain very similar. The most common Pothos cultivars are the beautiful gold-hued Golden Pothos and and mostly green Jade Pothos.
Even these varieties can feature cream patches if placed in areas with abundant sunlight. The unique Marble Queen Pothos however, features an eye-catching “shattered” variegation which would be hard to confuse.
Philodendrons also feature many varieties of cultivars, however, there is less variegation among them.
Instead, these cultivars can vary wildly in leaf shape and growth habits. For example, it’s almost hard to believe that the Pink Princess Philodendron and Hope Plant are related at first glance.
While the Ace of Spades Philodendron resembles the Heartleaf Philodendron in leaf shape and growth habits, it features and much darker purple leaf colour.
Since Philodendrons are better adapted to low light conditions, most of these cultivars will still hold their colour better than Pothos plants in shady conditions.
Although Pothos and the Heartleaf Philodendrons do share some commonalities in their appearances at first glance, it becomes much easier to tell them apart with a little further inspection.
Since these plants do thrive better in slightly different growing conditions and labels from retailers can sometimes be misleading, it is important to have the knowledge to identify them on your own.
Even though some of the key features for identification can seem a little technical, I hope this article has helped to explain them in a way that even a beginner plant owner can identify.
Amber Noyes was born and raised in a suburban California town, San Mateo. She holds a master’s degree in horticulture from the University of California as well as a BS in Biology from the University of San Francisco. With experience working on an organic farm, water conservation research, farmers’ markets, and plant nursery, she understands what makes plants thrive and how we can better understand the connection between microclimate and plant health. When she’s not on the land, Amber loves informing people of new ideas/things related to gardening, especially organic gardening, houseplants, and growing plants in a small space.