Article and Photos by: Evin Morrison, Extension Master Gardener
The houseplant section of any hardware store or nursery can be a little overwhelming if you haven’t walked in with a specific plant in mind. The traditional Peace Lily to give as a gift, a Pothos to cascade down the bookshelf in your living room or maybe an Aloe Vera for the sunny spot on your patio, but also to treat those inevitable summer sunburns. For those who’ve just wandered over to see what’s on offer, though? Well, the options really do seem limitless.
One plant that has been on the market for many years, but still gets overlooked is the Syngonium. These vining plants, also called arrowhead vines (especially in older literature), are perfect for beginners as they thrive in medium light, don’t have any special watering needs, and come in a variety of leaf shapes and colors.
Syngoniums belong to the Araceae family, commonly called aroids. Many of the most popular houseplants, including Philodendrons, Pothos/Scindapsus, and Monstera all fall into this family of plants. The most common Syngonium that you will see at the store is Syngonium podophyllum, but the fun part is that over the years the market has been flooded with cultivars, which range from all green to bright pink, and there is even a harder-to-find variegated variety. Once you’ve delved into the genus, it’s quite easy to start a collection of all the different beautiful varieties.
Syngoniums, like most of our houseplants, are tropical, evergreen plants. When young, they have an upright growth pattern with long stems and, in most cases, an arrowhead-shaped leaf. More mature plants will start to vine and can look lovely in hanging baskets, but most that you find in the store will be standing tall.
Syngoniums do best in a medium-light situation, so you won’t need to rearrange the living room to give your new plant the sunniest spot. In fact, too much light will burn the leaves, especially varieties that are mottled with white or pink. The all-green versions will have a much easier time in those higher light situations, but still, it is best to keep Syngoniums in a room with all-day ambient light, or a space with north, east or west windows. Full southern sun exposure will likely lead to a crispy plant.
Watering your Syngonium is also very simple. They do like a little more water than some houseplants, so they are a great option for the heavy-handed waterer. A good rule of thumb is to let the top layer of soil dry out a few inches and then give the plant a good drink. However, Syngoniums will tell you when they are thirsty, so if you miss a watering or are still trying to get the hang of your watering schedule, you’ll have a warning: this plant will visibly droop. Once watered it will stand tall again and look good as new, but it is a helpful sign when you aren’t sure how much water to give it. Allowing the plant to droop for too long or too many times, though, will lead to yellowing or browning of the bottom-most, oldest leaves. On the other hand, it is important not to overwater, because Syngoniums are susceptible to root rot and bacterial leaf spot if they stay too soggy for too long.
Humidity for most house plants is key and Syngoniums are no different. Plants that are not getting enough humidity will start to get crispy on the edges. If you have a bathroom with a window that gets good light, Syngoniums will thrive there. The steam from the shower will provide ample humidity. If you don’t have these conditions, using a misting bottle or having a humidifier in your home will achieve the same outcome and you’ll have very happy plants.
Propagation is easy, as is the case with most aroids. Simply cut the portion you’d like to propagate below a node with clean scissors and place it in water. In no time you will see roots starting to form. Change the water every few days. This will help avoid algae growth and reoxygenate the water. Once you have quite a bit of root growth, you can simply pot it up in your preferred houseplant substrate. The trick then is to keep the potting mix on the moist side. When you propagate in water the plant will produce roots that are equipped to deal with an all-water environment (“water roots”). When those same roots are transferred into soil, they need to stay moist until new roots that are equipped to pull nutrients from the soil emerge. Don’t leave the plant soaking wet but keep a close eye to make sure you aren’t seeing any drooping.
Note that the ASPCA lists Syngoniums as a plant that is toxic to both cats and dogs, so before purchasing, be sure you are able to place it safely out of the way of pets. Due to insoluble calcium oxalates in the plant your pet could experience oral irritation. If you suspect your pet has nibbled one of your plants, it’s important to keep an eye on them and call your veterinarian for further instructions.
Variety is the spice of life
Among the many varieties and cultivars of Syngoniums available, the most common are cultivars of Syngonium podophyllum, which can vary widely in color. These varieties will have the more arrowhead-shaped leaves and a very upright growth pattern until eventually they start to vine. If you are looking for some color to mix in with your all-green houseplants, there are quite a few pink options to choose from. For example, Syngonium podophyllum ‘Maria Allusion’ has a pink, speckled leaf pattern, while the leaves of Syngonium podophyllum ‘Pink Allusion’ are more solidly pink. Syngonium podophyllum ‘Berry Allusion’ has brighter green leaves with pink veining in the middle.
Mottled leaves are also often a desired look from Syngoniums that collectors look for when adding a new plant to their collection. Syngonium podophyllum albo-variegatum sports much larger variegated segments. However, the white segments of the leaves are devoid of chlorophyll and therefore don’t contribute nutrients to the plant. On occasion all-white leaves can emerge and while beautiful, they most likely won’t last very long and will turn brown. Sadly, the white segments also often brown especially when the plant is allowed to dry out or if the humidity levels aren’t adequate. Syngonium podophyllum ‘Army/Mojito’ has a much more mottled look with the white or cream segments being much smaller and more irregular.
The wide variety of leaves of Syngonium podophyllum cultivars makes growing the plants even more fun because as each new leaf unfurls, you get a surprise.
The genus of Syngonium varies widely beyond the podophyllum varieties. So, while difference in color is a huge draw, you can also be on the lookout for plants with differing leaf textures. Some species have velvety leaves such as Syngonium rayii, which is very dark in color and thrives best in a terrarium environment. Syngonium wendlandii also has velvety leaves and prefers higher humidity but is usually much greener in color.
Now that we’ve covered leaf color and texture you can venture even further—into leaf shape. While most Syngoniums have the well-known arrowhead-shaped leaves, others have more rounded lobes or can even be tri-lobed.
Both Syngonium chiapense and Syngonium macrophyllum ‘Ice Frost’ are most often described as heart-shaped because of the rounded, less pointy top lobes and have a matte leaf that is thicker in texture than some of their relatives. Further species, like Syngonium auritum have what’s called a tri-lobed leaf. The sections of the leaves are much more pronounced and segmented, creating a “T” shape. On the very rare side of the spectrum for US houseplant buyers is the Syngonium steyermarkii; its leaves have saw-toothed edges.
To really showcase how different the Syngonium varietals can be, Syngonium erythrophyllum ‘Llano-Carti Road’ boasts a dark red underside and tends to vine at a much more immature stage than the Podophyllum varieties. This is one of the few Syngoniums that have color on the undersides of the leaves.
Syngoniums vs. Caladiums
Syngoniums and Caladiums can have very similar coloring, leaf shape and growth pattern, so it can be easy to accidentally get them confused. The biggest difference is that Syngoniums grow from adventitious roots, while Caladiums are grown from tubers. Caladium tubers need to experience a dormant period during the winter months, while Syngoniums are evergreen and if they are kept in ideal conditions will continue to grow. Additionally, Syngoniums are vining, climbing plants, so given the opportunity to grow up a moss pole or board, their roots will attach to the surface and they will grow skyward. On the other hand, caladiums grow in a clump on the ground and won’t climb. Caladiums are also much more sensitive to high light than Syngoniums and while both will burn in too high light levels, Caladiums are more likely to burn first.
If you are looking to bring home a new houseplant, delving into the world of Syngoniums can be very rewarding. They are easy to grow in a variety of locations and easy to propagate when they outgrow their home. Once divided you can share with friends and help them fall in love with this unique genus.
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Accessed 09 Aug. 2022