Philodendron Gone Wild! When Houseplants Outgrow the House
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Q. First, I want to tell you that we have marvelous gardens thanks to all we've learned listening to you—FAITHFULLY—on WTEB, Public Radio East. Our concern is an Elephant Ear philodendron we purchased more than 35 years ago. It thrived in the window of our record shop for 20 years, but when Mom & Pop record stores closed all across the country in the early 2000's, we took it home, bringing it inside for the winter and outside during warm weather. We've re-potted it a few times and it's now an eight foot tall MONSTER.
We know that you have to bring your tropical plants in for the winter, but YOU live up north. We have plenty of room, either under giant pines and magnolias or out in full sun. It can get cold here—last year was awful!—but our neighbor's banana trees come back every spring. Can our Elephant Ear Philodendron do the same? We're getting up in years and the thought of lugging this heavy, beautiful creature up and down the stairs is becoming overwhelming!
--Tom & Rebecca in eastern North Carolina
A. And that's where they got me—with the stairs. I have two very large Birds of Paradise in pots, they only have to go up two small steps to get into our enclosed, insulated porch for the winter, and I can't do that without help. Just the thought of dragging an eight foot tall plant up a flight of real stairs makes me shudder.
So: can they leave it outside?
The answer is somewhere between a straight 'no' and 'maybe, kind-of, but it won't be pretty' –depending somewhat on exactly what plant they have. Although everybody thinks of one basic house plant with big, heart-shaped leaves, the genus "Philodendron" is actually so huge that experts differ on the number of species by hundreds (although a lot of those are epiphytes that grow way up high in the canopy of rainforests). And there's a common American houseplant whose scientific name is "Monstera", but whose common names are split leaf or cut leaf philodendron; and a lot of books just list it with philodendrons.
"Monstera" is aptly named. In a frost-free climate, it typically reaches 30 to 60 feet—I saw philodendrons that size when I was in Cuba, where our house plants are their outdoor landscaping. There are true philodendrons whose common name is "elephant ear", but I found that variety name listed under several different species names. My best guess is the one we're talking about will top out at ten to twenty feet.
Yikes! (Maybe that's why a British book on houseplants I frequently consult notes—with more than a little bit of 'Across the Pond' attitude—that some philodendrons "are capable of growing into immense plants more suitable for public buildings than the average home.")
Now: What about hardiness? Can any survive outdoors in the States? That answer is a solid yes. "The Southern Living Garden Book" says that some types will survive winter in what they call 'the Tropical South' (Southern Florida and the far Southern tip of Texas and the like). They add that some types will even 'occasionally' survive in the 'Coastal South', for which North Carolina barely qualifies; they're talking more about the Eastern shores of Georgia and North Florida. And if it is a 'Elephant Ear' type, we're only talking about the Tropical South--or a similar climate, like Southern California.
So what can these poor people do? (Other than move to San Diego…)
My first thought is to try and donate it to someplace with decent light and a 20 foot high ceiling, where it could just stay inside all year or go outdoors in the summer on wheels of some kind.
I hear some of you thinking: "but they say that the neighbor's banana trees survive!"
Those are probably a class of plant called hardy bananas. It's a source of pride to grow these plants as far North as possible; some crazy people have gotten them to survive as far North as New York! (Parts of which are as far North as you can get before you hit Canada.) Kind of like figs, you can either wrap them for the winter or just let the tops freeze and they'll grow back from the roots.
Could philodendrons possibly do the same? "The book" (which means my interpretation of the info in six or seven different books) says that, in general, philodendrons are pretty frost sensitive but that they can also regrow after frost damage, so there is a chance. But it's a real crap shoot; they'd have to be prepared to lose this plant if they can't roll a nine.
If they want to roll those dice, I would pick a protected area near structures and trees, on high ground, that drains really well. I would dig a hole, and drop the pot into the hole—both to avoid any extra shock to the plant and to make it easier to get out if they can give it away next year. Then I would surround it with burlap wrapped around stakes and throw another piece of burlap over the top.
I would not just drape the plant itself with burlap. If the fabric gets wet and freezes, it shouldn't be touching the plant. No plastic either—that could cook the plant on a sunny day.
Or they could roll the plant up sideways against the house, cover it with shredded leaves and then cover the shredded leaves with burlap. Either way, after all risk of frost is over in the spring, unwrap it and prune away any winter damage, just like with figs.
I have NO idea if this will actually work—but anything has to be better than those steps.