Pothos vs. Philodendron (5 HUGE Differences you MUST know!)

a single philodendron leaf

What’s the difference between a heart leaf philodendron and a pothos?

Both species have small green leaves and a vining habit. They also share some family ties, both being from the Arecaea family, commonly known as Aroids.

However, they are undisputedly different species. Pothos (botanical name: Epipremnum aureumcomes from the Epipremeium genus, while Philodendron (Philodendron hederaceum, synonym Philodendron scadenscomes from, well, the Philodendron genus.

So how can we tell these lookalikes apart? Here are 5 critical physical differences that we will discuss to help you distinguish between a heart-leaf Philodendron and a Pothos.

Difference #1: Leaf Shape and Leaf Tips

The first and perhaps most obvious way to tell the difference between a Philodendron and a Pothos is by looking at its leaves.

Philodendron leaves are heart-shaped with a well-defined sinus (the top of the heart shape, where two rounded lobes meet). Pothos leaves, on the other hand, lack such sinus definition. They appear more oval-shaped than heart-shaped.

Another critical difference in leaf shape is at the tips. Philodendrons have a more extended, narrower tip, making the leaf appear elongated. On the other hand, Pothos have stubby and broad leaf tips.

comparison of leaf shape of a philodendron (left) and pothos (right). the philodendron has pointier tips compared to the pothos.
Philodendrons (left) have longer and narrower leaf tips. A pothos (right) has broader leaf tips. It also is thicker and has more bumps or grooves.

Difference #2: Texture

Another way to tell these two apart is by the differences in leaf texture. Pothos’ leaves are thicker and waxier, with small bumps or grooves. On the other hand, Philodendron leaves are both thinner and smoother. The latter is also less glossy than the Pothos, and feels a little more velvety.

Difference #3: Petiole

The petiole is the short stem that starts from the sinus of the leaf, attaching the leaf to the main stem.

Petioles on Pothos are thick. They also either have the same color as the leaf or are one shade lighter.

Philodendrons have thinner petioles than those of Pothos. Rather than adopting the same color as the leaves, Philodendron petioles are brown or reddish in color.

comparison of the leaf petiole of the philodendron (red) on the left, and that of a pothos (green) on the right. arrows pointing to the petioles
Philodendron’s petiole is brownish (left), versus the green petiole of a Pothos (right).

Difference #4: Aerial roots

Both Pothos and Philodendron plants have aerial roots. Aerial roots allow both species to climb host trees, pushing the plants higher up in the rainforest canopy. They also draw nutrients and moisture from the air using these roots.

The difference is in how these aerial roots grow:

  • Pothos’ aerial roots are thick, with a single root extending from a node.
  • On the other hand, Philodendrons’ aerial roots can cluster together. Typically 2-6 roots are growing from a single node. They are thinner and more spindly (stringy) than that of a Pothos.
comparison of aerial roots and nodes on a philodendron (left) and a pothos (right). the philodendron has multiple thin aerial roots growing from a single node, whereas the pothos has one thick aerial root growing from a node
Philodendron aerial roots (left), versus the Pothos single aerial root (right).

Difference #5: New Growth

The last way to physically tell the difference between a Pothos and a heartleaf Philodendron is how new growth emerges in these plants.

A new Pothos leaf emerges from a tightly curled elongated spike, then slowly unfurls. These juvenile leaves are a lighter shade than mature leaves. The former will slowly but surely darken as it grows.

On the other hand, new Philodendron leaves are covered by a cataphyll. A cataphyll is an opaque, waxy sheath that dries and falls off once the leaves have unfurled. Pothos do not have cataphylls.

philodendron leaf covered by a cataphyll. arrowing pointing to the cataphyll
A new Philodendron leaf covered by a cataphyll

New Philodendron leaves tend to have a brown-pinkish color, compared to new Pothos leaves that are light green.

Over time, the Philodendron leaf will lose its pinkish sheen and develop a deeper green color as it matures.

Bonus: Growing conditions

The heartleaf Philodendrons and Pothos are tropical vines and share similar care conditions. These include needing bright indirect light and well-draining soil that still retains some moisture.

However, there is one key difference in growing conditions. Heartleaf Philodendrons are much better suited to survive in lower light conditions. While both still prefer the usual prescription of ample bright, indirect light, Philodendrons are more adaptable when light conditions are lower.

Because of their low-light tolerance, variegated heartleaf Philodendrons are less likely to lose their variegation in shaded spots. Pothos, on the other hand, quickly shed their variegation when light is low.

Our main takeaway is to understand the natural light conditions in your home before deciding between these two species!

Bonus: Varieties

It can be easy to get confused by the many different variations of these two plants. While both species have multiple varieties, Pothos variations are more abundant!

Here are some of our favorite Pothos varieties.

neon pothos houseplant being held up in a small plastic pot
The stunning Neon Pothos

Here are details of 11 types of Pothos to grow in your home.

Philodendron Hederaceum (synonym for Philodendron Scadens), on the other hand, only has one natural cultivar. That is the Philodendron Brasil, its variegated form.

Beyond the specific heartleaf Philodendron, however, here are some other Philodendron houseplant favorites to explore:

The stunning Philodendron Brandtianum with silvery-grey variegation on mottled leaves

Wrapping Up

While Pothos and Philodendron have undoubted similarities, a discerning eye can identify the differences between these two species! To summarise,

  • Philodendron leaves are heart-shaped with narrower leap tips, while Pothos leaves are oval and have broader tips.
  • Texture-wise, Philodendron leaves are thinner and smoother, Pothos leaves are thicker and bumpy.
  • Philodendron petioles are brown or reddish, while Pothos petioles are green.
  • Philodendrons have long, spindly aerial roots that cluster together from a single node. While Pothos only grows a thick, single aerial root from each node.
  • When looking at new growth, Philodendrons have a cataphyll covering a baby leaf; Pothos do not. Pothos leaves simply unfurl with no covering.

Deborah is a plant enthusiast and founder of Gardening Collective.

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