Umbrella plants aren't topping the lists of trendy houseplants these days, but they're a low-maintenance, easy-to-care-for plant that can add graceful foliage to a room. Perhaps these under-appreciated beauties are due for a renaissance in your home.
About This Plant
The common names "umbrella plant," "schefflera," or "octopus tree" can refer to two different, but closely-related, species: Schefflera arboricola and Schefflera actinophylla. If you're curious which one you have, generally if the leaflets are longer than 4 or 5 inches (10-13 cm), it's a Schefflera actinophylla: otherwise it's Schefflera arboricola. The photo above actually shows both: On the windowsill partially behind the leaves of the big Schefflera actinophylla, there's a dwarf variegated Schefflera arboricola. The two species often look very similar, and need virtually identical conditions indoors, so the following recommendations refer to both plants, unless stated otherwise.
A native of the forests of Taiwan, Schefflera arboricola can get 26 to 30 feet tall (8-9 m) outdoors, though it will generally top out at 8 to 10 feet (2-3 m) tall indoors. There are dwarf versions, popular for bonsai, that stay much smaller.
Schefflera actinophylla comes from the forest of Australia, New Guinea, and Java. It is the larger of the two species, able to reach heights of 50 feet (15 m) outdoors.
Several variegated types of both species, with yellow, gold, or white patterns on the leaves, are also widely available.
According to the ASPCA, both schefflera are toxic to dogs and cats.
Where to Grow
Although umbrella plants do best in bright, indirect light, they can usually tolerate direct indoor light, and will just grow more slowly and become leggy in medium-to-low light. Humidity is generally not a concern, but the plants can be more susceptible to pests like scale and spider mites if the air is too dry.
Indoors, umbrella plants prefer temperatures of 55°F to 75°F (13°C to 24°C). They can be grown outdoors year-round in USDA zones 10-11. Schefflera actinophylla is an aggressive grower, and is considered an invasive species in Florida and Hawaii, so check local restrictions before planting outdoors.
Care and Planting
Like most houseplants, umbrella plants need good drainage so that excess moisture in the soil doesn't lead to death by root rot. Plant in a pot with a drainage hole, ideally in a peat-moss-based potting mix. Repot every few years in the spring.
Water thoroughly when the top of the potting mix dries out, then let the soil dry before watering again. Umbrella plants are flexible about watering, but more tolerant of dry soil than overwatering. They don't like wet feet, so empty the drainage saucer after watering.
Umbrella plants don't need regular fertilizer, but for faster growth, you can give your plant a standard diluted plant fertilizer once a month during the summer. Keep the leaves dust-free by wiping with a damp cloth or sponge.
A mature tree, like the one pictured in the lead image, may need to be supported with a stake. Schefflera that get too big or leggy can be pruned back. Pinch growing tips to encourage a fuller, bushier plant.
In warm, high-humidity conditions, outdoor plants may even flower, but don't expect flowers indoors.
How to Propagate
To propagate, clip a stem near the base of the plant with clean shears. Dip the end in rooting hormone, then place it in potting soil in a small container. Water and place in bright, indirect light. Enclosing the pot in a clear plastic bag can help maintain humidity that will help speed rooting, as will keeping it at warm temperatures, 65°F to 75°F (18°C to 24°C. Some people also report success with rooting stems in water before planting in soil.