A rare beauty that is often out of stock, the philodendron tortum is a truly magnificent find. Unlike any other philodendron variety, it boasts vibrant skeleton key shaped leaves that are delicate yet waxy.
It’s been deemed one of the most bizarre species in the araceae family of plants and has a surprisingly rich and intriguing history.
In this guide, I’ll be sharing the best and most up to date philodendron tortum care tips and requirements so its elongated leaves and spindly stems thrive in your collection.
Philodendron Tortum Brief History & Origin
Relatively new to the commercial market, the philodendron bipinnatifidum ‘tortum’ was first discovered in 1957, though it’s believed the plant has been thriving for hundreds of years before that, unknown to mankind.
Back then it could only be found growing naturally in one place in the entire world: a tropical rainforest located deep within the Amazon, just on the outskirts of Manaus.
In 1963, this region became protected under Brazilian law. A reserve called the Adolfo Ducke Forest Reserve was established in honor of Adolfo Ducke, one of the world’s most respected experts on Amazonian flora.
As a result, the philodendron tortum, amongst many other varieties of plants were placed under a commercial quota, meaning only so many specimens could be harvested for propagation and commercial resale.
Over the years this has led to plant smuggling and theft, purely as a means of making more money. Some collectors will pay a pretty penny to snag one of the original ‘mother plants’ from Manaus.
Now, a further 13 growing regions have been established across South America as a way to combat the surge in demand.
Friendly tip: Make sure you’re buying this plant from a reputable source that includes phytosanitary certificates, which will state their origin.
Philodendron Tortum Care
The philodendron tortum loves a moist, well-draining aroid potting mix that’s rich in organic matter.
FYI, there’s no such thing as a ‘standard’ aroid potting mix – philodendrons grow in the wild in ALL sorts of mediums.
The mix I use and so far have had the best results with is:
- 2 parts Coco Coir
- 2 Parts Orchid Bark
- 1.5 Parts Perlite
- 0.5 Part Sphagnum Moss (green or brown)
- 1.5 Parts Activated Charcoal
- 1 Part Worm Castings
It’s an airy woody substrate that mimics their natural hemiepiphytic nature.
The potting mix is the foundation for your plant’s survival and the key to getting it right is to balance the number of elements that retain moisture and the elements that drain moisture.
Coco coir and sphagnum moss help a plant to retain their moisture whilst providing adequate drainage.
Perlite and orchid bark aid in drainage (and allows roots to form attachments), whilst activated charcoal is said to prevent pests, remove soil impurities and stop mold from developing.
Worm castings (worm poo) act as an organic fertilizer.
Friendly Tip: I don’t recommend the miracle grow or westland mixes. I’ve bought a few of these in the past and never ended up using them - they were full of pests and small pieces of plastic. There’s also a string of 1 star reviews on Amazon.
Keep your philodendron tortum in a place that gets lots of bright, indirect light for best results.
Don’t be afraid to put it somewhere it can receive 2-3 hours of direct morning sun either. It’s a misconception that any direct sun will cause damage.
Problems only arise when your plant is kept in direct sun all day long, not just for a few hours. Some direct sun can do your plant a whole lot of good.
Keeping this plant in low light for more than 2-3 months will cause the deep, emerald green colors to fade and turn pale.
The philodendron tortum LOVES moist, well drained soil, but the key thing here is well drained.
Boggy, waterlogged or soaking soil can cause dreaded root rot or erwinia blight disease, which can kill your plant in a matter of days, not weeks.
Fortunately, if you’ve made a well-draining potting mix (as above), then your plant is already well equipped to deal with any excess water.
Overwatering isn’t caused by the volume of water you use at one time, but rather how frequently you water and the type of soil you use. Waterlogged soil typically happens overtime and is caused by soil that’s poorly aerated.
How and When to Water Your Philodendron Tortum
Water just enough to keep the top inch (3cm) of soil damp. I do this 1-2 times a week with a water/fertilizer solution in the spring and summer, and I cut back in autumn and winter months (unless you can provide optimal growing conditions all year round).
If you live in a hot, humid or tropical region, your plant will need more waterings as transpiration increases.
I don’t leave the soil to completely dry out in between waterings. Once the soil dries it creates a “blanket effect” which traps moisture below and stops much needed oxygen from reaching the roots.
A warmth lover, the tortum grows well in temperatures that mimic the Amazonian rainforest as close as possible.
This means trying to keep a stable temperature of between 60-80F or 16-29C, though it will love warmer if you’re able to stand it.
GBIF’s field notes state that anything less than 55° Fahrenheit (12.5C) will result in stunted growth, withering or even death.
You might be surprised to discover that the philodendron tortum is an intermediate tropical plant which means it’s been classified as a plant that can handle an average humidity level.
Average humidity in the plant world ranges from 40-50%.
That said, in higher humidity environments (think 70%+), the philodendron tortum will sprout lots of aerial roots which makes propagation easier and gives the plant its characteristic spindly look.
How to Increase Humidity Levels in Your Home
To increase humidity levels in your home, you can use a small humidifier and/or group your plant collection together.
Myth Buster: Misting and pebble trays do very little to increase humidity. The moisture in the air disperses very quickly before it even has a chance to raise moisture levels.
Grouping plants helps to create a mini biome whereby plants share ‘humidity resources’.
Why Grouping Increases Humidity: Plants continually lose water from their leaves through a process known as transpiration. The lost water vapor then immediately surrounds the plant, increasing local humidity. By grouping your plants together, the amount of transpiration increases, and humidity levels will drastically improve.
Once potted, houseplants have no natural way of obtaining nutrients. Once they’ve absorbed the nutrients in the potting mix or soil, that’s their nutrient stream depleted.
This is why houseplants need regular fertilizing, despite what many believe. A lack of any type of fertilizer will cause severely stunted growth.
Best Fertilizer for Philodendron Tortum
There are lots of options on the market, but I love and use dyna grow (7-9-5 NPK formula), it’s a complete liquid fertilizer that contains all 16 essential nutrients your plant needs to survive.
It’s urea free and low in heavy nitrogen salts which alter the pH level of the soil and lead to root burn if left to form a residue crust on the top level of soil.
How to Fertilize Your Philodendron Tortum
I used to fertilize my plants once a month like many care guides say to do but it seemed hit and miss and completely unnatural to me as a botanist!
In the wild, plants receive a steady stream of nutrients over days – they don’t take one big gulp a month.
It’s the human equivalent of eating anything you can get your hands on in one day and then starving for the rest of the month.
For this reason, I fertilize my plants with a very diluted solution every time they get watered. You’ll sometimes hear this referred to as maintenance feeding.
To do this I simply dilute 1/4 teaspoon of dyna grow with 1 gallon of water (4.5 litres) and water my plant with this solution every time in spring and summer (roughly once a week, sometimes more if it’s a particularly hot day).
This will not burn the plant – it’s diluted to half and then half again.
I cut back both on waterings and feedings in autumn, and stop fertilizing completely in the winter months to prevent oversaturation during the more dormant part of their growth cycle.
Alternatively, you can use another brand of liquid fertilizer that’s high in nitrogen (promotes leaf development), dilute to half the recommended strength and feed once a month. Completely up to you.
When Should I Fertilize my Plant?
It’s best to fertilize in spring and summer, the main growing months and cut back during the autumn and months.
This minimizes the risk of residue salt build up or root burn. Excessive fertilization can also cause the tortum’s leaves to curl and turn yellow on the edges.
Friendly Tip: Super cheap fertilizers are loaded with heavy nitrogen salts which in large quantities can lead to death (plant death that is, you’re good) very quickly due to the rapid change in alkalinity.
Can I Use an Organic Fertilizer Instead?
Yes, you can. Note that organic fertilizers take longer to break down because they need bacteria and microbes to decompose the organic material so plants can readily absorb the nutrients.
If you live in a region that allows you to move your houseplants outdoors, I HIGHLY recommend Alaska fish emulsion – it’s packed with nitrogen and does wonders for foliage growth.
Indigenous cultures used to bury fish under crops because they recognised how potent fish was as a natural fertilizer.
Word of warning, the stuff can be pretty stinky (hence why I recommend you use it outdoors).
Other natural fertilizers to look at include kelp and seaweed extract, worm tea and compost tea.
Friendly tip: You don’t need to double up on fertilizers, especially if you are already using a complete formulation i.e. dyna grow. Less is more when it comes to fertilizer.
Growth – What Can I Expect?
Indoors, the philodendron tortum can grow up to 6 feet tall (1.8m), with individual leaves (the sword-like branches) growing up to 2-3 inches (5-8cm) in length. The typical spacing between each spindle is around 1-1.5 inches (3-4cm).
In the wild, they completely dwarf their juvenile form, growing up 19 feet tall (6m).
Pruning – Should I Prune This Plant?
As the philodendron tortum is a moderate to fast grower, it will need occasional pruning to keep it looking tidy and in shape. With a clean pair of pruning scissors, cut back damaged, diseased, infected or leggy foliage.
How to Propagate the Philodendron Tortum – 2 Simple Methods
With a mature philodendron tortum propagation is fairly simple as it grows notoriously beautiful aerial roots from its nodes. Taking stem cuttings or air layering the nodes have the highest success rates for home growers and enthusiasts.
Friendly Tip: Propagating in the beginning of spring, at the start of this plant’s growth cycle, lends a higher chance of your plant developing stronger and healthy roots.
Philodendron Tortum Propagation Methods – Step by Step
Cutting your plant can be really scary but don’t worry, I’ll walk you through it step by step.
Method #1 – How to Take a Stem Cutting
- Choose a healthy stem that has 2-3 nodes on it (this will come from the main stem). Nodes are the little intersections with aerial roots that creep up to the leaf.
- With a clean pair of pruning scissors, cut the stem just below the nodes.
- Prepare a small pot of moist 50-50 sphagnum moss and perlite. The moss should be wet, but not soaking.
- Dip the freshly cut stem/aerial roots into a rooting hormone solution or powder.
- Plant the stem into your pre-made potting mix (2-3 inches into the mix). The nodes should be well buried under the mix – this is where roots will come from.
- Fill the rest of the pot with your spag moss and perlite mix.
- Place in a warm area that receives bright, indirect light.
- Water and make sure the moss is kept moist.
Roots tend to develop fairly quickly with the tortum. Within 2-3 weeks you should have some roots starting to take hold.
Once the roots are around 1 inch (3cm) long, you can move it to a bigger container with a richer potting mix.
Method #2 – How to Air Layer your Philodendron
The air layering method works for mature, well established philodendron tortums that are already creeping up a pole or stake.
- Look for some older, well established aerial roots shooting out from a healthy node.
- Take some wet sphagnum moss, and wrap it around the healthy node with roots and the pole. This helps support thinner stems.
- Using a transparent plastic bag or press and seal food wrap, wrap it fully around the node with moss. Make sure to not catch any leaves into this wrap.
- If you used a plastic bag, you’ll need a zip tie to secure it in place. Press and seal food wrap should tape itself up pretty well (I’ve always found it much easier!).
- Leave the top and bottom of the seal open. New roots like to dive downwards and this helps them do so without bunching up.
- Thoroughly mist the sphagnum moss through the open top in the plastic bag every day. This stops the moss from compacting and drying up. Don’t let the moss ball dry out.
- Wait 2-3 weeks for new roots to develop. No roots showing? Don’t worry, simply don’t cut the plant, and try again another time. Air layering is a 100% safe and secure propagation method for this reason.
- Carefully remove the plastic wrap and some of the moss around your new roots. Check that the roots look healthy!
- Cut the stem just below the new roots with clean scissors.
- Pot the stem in a rich potting mix (see above). Care for as usual.
That’s it! I prefer the air layering method because there’s less risk. You only cut the plant when roots have developed, not before.
Common Pests & Diseases to Watch Out For
The philodendron tortum is a very resilient plant when it comes to pests and diseases.It’s not prone to anything in particular. The main suspects to watch out for are:
- Mealybugs – white unarmored sap sucking bugs that are round in shape
- Scale – white, yellow or orange tiny sap sucking bugs
- Thrips – small, orange or brown slender bugs that suck sap
- Aphids – tiny sap sucking insects that tend to gather in clusters
- Spider mites – very small orange or red spiders that quickly form thick webbings on plants
- Erwinia Blight Disease – wet, mushy looking lesions on stems and leaves
Mealybugs, scale, thrips, spider mites and aphids can all be removed with an eco-friendly insecticide. Neem oil is what I use. It’s a vegetable oil from India that when pressed has natural insecticidal properties.
I add 1-2 tablespoons of oil to a large container of warm water and bathe the plant in the solution.
Erwinia blight disease however, is easier to prevent than cure. It’s caused by too much overhead watering or leaf misting.
It’s a serious bacterial infection that starts under the soil level and within days can reach the stems and leaves.
The first sign to prevent erwinia blight is to watch out for yellowing or wilting leaves. This can be a sign you’re overwatering your philodendron tortum.
Secondly, you’ll want to prune any infected leaves, change the potting mix and check for root rot. Rotten roots will look black, mushy and might have a bad smell.
Toxicity – Is The Philodendron Tortum Toxic?
Yes. The philodendron tortum contains calcium oxalate crystals, meaning the plant is toxic to small children and pets, including cats and dogs if ingested. Symptoms of toxicity include swelling of the esophagus, mouth, and GIT.
Help! What’s Wrong With My Plant? – Common Philodendron Tortum Problems
Problem #1 – Yellowing Leaves
Yellowing leaves have many causes including magnesium deficiency and pests but the main culprit to watch out for is root rot caused by overwatering. If the leaf is turning yellow on the edges, it suggests the plant is in early stages of stress.
Check the base of the plant for black, mushy and bad smelling roots and for good measure, change the potting mix.
If root rot or mealybugs are present, try to salvage a few cuttings and propagate them.
Problem #2 – Pale Leaf Color
Pale leaves in a normally darker green plant are usually caused by low light conditions. Simply move to a location that receives lots of bright.
If you think your plant is getting enough light, it’s likely you’re lacking essential nutrients. Make sure you’re using a complete fertilizer to fix the problem.
Problem #3 – Wet, Mushy Patches on the Leaves
This could be erwinia blight disease or pseudomonas leaf spot. Bacterial infections often cause the patches and the soil to smell bad. Both diseases need moisture to spread and are caused by too much overhead watering.
You can try to save your plant by changing the potting mix, pruning damaged leaves, and applying a diluted copper sulfate solution.
Problem #4 – Browning Tips
This could be a sign your plant is getting too much bright, direct sunlight or it’s being underwatered. Underwatered plants tend to have curling and wrinkling leaves.
Problem #5 – Black Patches on the Leaves
Black patches are usually a sign that your philodendron has been exposed to cold temperatures. Philodendrons are tropical plants and true warmth lovers. Move to a warmer location.
Problem #6 – Brown patches on the Leaves
Brown patches signal that your plant has been left in direct sun for too long. A few hours is okay, but a whole day is not. The brown patches are scorch marks.
Common FAQ – Your Philodendron Tortum Questions Answered
Is the Philodendron Tortum Rare?
Yes, the philodendron tortum is considered a rare aroid. Whilst it’s found abundantly in the wilderness, it’s commercial demand far outweighs its supply.
How Much Does a Philodendron Tortum Cost to Buy?
A philodendron tortum stem cutting can cost anywhere between $35-$70 (£24-£49), whilst a mature plant can set you back a hefty $139-$210 (£98-£148).
Where Can I Buy a Philodendron Tortum?
Philodendron tortums can be difficult to find, but they sometimes appear on specialised aroid nursery websites, in garden centres and on Etsy.
Should I Mist My Plant?
It’s been proven that there’s no benefit to misting your plants – it’s a common myth. Misting, when overdone, can actually cause bacterial and fungal infections to develop on the leaves and stems if the water isn’t evaporated quickly.
Does the Philodendron Tortum Climb?
Yes, the philodendron tortum is a climbing variety and will appreciate being propped up by a pole or stake. As its branches become heavier, a pole can provide support, preventing droopiness.