Pothos and vining philodendron varieties are arguably some of the most popular houseplants around, and ironically they are often mistaken for one another. While they do look alike and have a lot of the same growth requirements and habits, they are different plants with distinct characteristics and needs. Once you know what to look for, they are quite easily distinguishable from one another.
Both pothos and philodendron are toxic to cats and dogs when ingested. Grow with caution around pets.
Differences Between Pothos & Philodendrons
There are several key differences between pothos (also commonly called "Devil's Ivy") and vining philodendrons that can help to tell them apart. These include their taxonomy, their leaf shape and texture, their aerial roots and petioles, their growth habit and new leaves, and their growing requirements.
Taxonomy is the branch of science that is concerned with classifying groups of biological organisms and is how plants are named and organized into genera and families. Essentially it is concerned with botanical nomenclature.
Pothos and philodendrons are two separate and distinct plants that belong to separate genera. Pothos belongs to the Epipremnum genus and philodendron belongs to the Philodendron genus. However, they do exist under the same family as both pothos and philodendron belong to the aroid plant family (Araceae).
Leaf Shape and Texture
One of the easiest ways to tell pothos and philodendrons apart is by their leaves. Philodendrons (pictured left) have more heart-shaped leaves that are thinner with a soft texture. Pothos, on the other hand, have leaves that are larger, thicker, and waxier.
These leaf differences are especially noticeable in the area where the petiole connects to the base of the leaf. While the base of a pothos leaf is relatively straight, the base of a philodendron leaf is dramatically curved inwards and shaped like the top of a heart.
Aerial Roots and Petioles
Differences can also be noted between the aerial roots and petioles of pothos versus the aerial roots and petioles of philodendrons. Both pothos and philodendrons have aggressive aerial roots that allow them to climb and vine around surfaces. However, pothos (pictured right) only have one large aerial root per node, while philodendrons (pictured left) may have several smaller aerial roots per node, and tend to look more wild and untamed.
Petioles are the small stems that connect the leaves to the main stems of the plant. Because of the differences in growth habits, pothos have petioles that are indented towards the stem they connect to, while philodendrons have petioles that are fully rounded. Philodendron petioles also tend to be thinner than the petioles of pothos.
Growth Habit and New Leaves
Another way to tell the difference between pothos versus philodendron is to look for the presence of cataphylls. When new leaves grow on a trailing philodendron, they emerge from cataphylls, which are essentially small leaves that encase and protect the new leaf as it grows. They usually remain on the plant after the new leaf has unfurled, eventually drying up and falling off. Pothos do not grow new leaves in this manner. Rather than emerging from cataphylls, new leaves on pothos plants simply grow and unfurl from the previous leaf.
Admittedly, pothos and philodendrons have very similar needs when it comes to light, soil, water, and temperature, and both are considered to be low-maintenance houseplants. However, there are a couple of minor differences that are useful to know.
While both pothos and philodendrons can tolerate low light, pothos tolerate low light more readily than philodendrons. Philodendrons will get leggy more quickly than pothos, and will begin to grow very small leaves if they don’t receive enough light. Pothos on the other hand get leggy more slowly, and their leaf size remains relatively unaffected by low light.
Pothos are also slightly easier to propagate by cuttings than philodendrons, and they are more drought-tolerant.
There is another plant that often gets confused with both pothos and philodendrons. Scandipsus pictus is another plant in the aroid family that goes by the common name satin pothos, although it is not actually a pothos at all. It is characterized by a vining growth habit, and shimmery silver patches across all of its leaves that gives it an iridescent glow and has very similar growth requirements to both pothos and philodendron. However, the characteristic leaf pattern of satin pothos usually makes it easy to identify.
There are many varieties of pothos and trailing philodendrons that look similar to one another. The general guidelines outlined here will help you to identify any species of pothos or trailing philodendron with ease.