University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science
Anytime News ArticleEASY HOUSEPLANTS—UMBRELLA PLANT
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
The umbrella plant may be seen as octopus tree—both names from the
spreading leaves with large leaflets in an umbrella spoke pattern.
It often goes just by the genus name of Schefflera (said as
scheff-Lair-ah), named after the nineteenth century German botanist
J.C. Scheffler. Don’t confuse it with the grass-like umbrella
sedge, a water plant. Schefflera is not too fussy about culture—just
give it bright light, don’t overwater, and watch for certain pests.
While this tropical plant can get quite large outdoors in climates
such as south Florida, it can be grown indoors in much less space
and is commonly found in greenhouses, homes, and public spaces. The
main species (Schefflera actinophylla) can get to 40 feet
high outdoors in the tropics, yet only gets 8 to 10 feet usually
indoors and half as wide. A shorter species, the dwarf schefflera (Schefflera
arboricola) may be found under another previous genus (Heptapleurum).
This one only gets 4 to 6 feet high and wide indoors.
Leaves on both have distinct leaflets—up to 7 usually on the main
species and 7 to 11 on the dwarf one. There may be more on plants
outdoors in the tropics. Leaflets are up to a foot long on the main
species, and only 4 inches or so long on the dwarf one, and
thicker. There is a commonly seen form of the dwarf schefflera with
yellow variegated leaves.
Schefflera contains calcium oxalate crystals. These make this plant
harmful to cats and dogs if leaves are chewed, resulting in intense
mouth and throat discomfort and related issues.
Plants like bright light but not direct sun, which can cause leaf
burn. At least 3 to 4 hours a day of sun filtered through a thin
sheer curtain would be ideal. Being tropical, they like warmth.
Use a houseplant fertilizer of your choice, according to label
directions, if plants are actively growing. Temperatures shouldn’t
drop much below 60 degrees (F) or for long in winter. Below 50
degrees and leaves may turn black and drop off.
While schefflera doesn’t get any serious pests or diseases, watch
for white mealybugs. These can be dabbed off with cotton swabs and
rubbing alcohol. Also watch for small brown scale insects, and
their sticky residue, and wipe these off similarly. Once
established, the latter are harder to get rid of. If you see
webbing on leaves, particular undersides, and leaves with a mottled
yellowing, look closely for minute spider mites. Insecticidal soaps
can be used on these, as well as other sprays labelled for this
pest. Keeping leaves wiped every month or so with a damp cloth will
help get rid of any insects, and will keep dust off the wide
Lower leaves may drop off with older plants, or from sudden extremes
in temperature, too little light, or staying too wet or drying out.
Schefflera is much more forgiving of too little water, than too
much. Drafts such as near doors and heating vents in winter, or air
conditioners in summer, also can cause leaves to drop.
If a plant loses lots of, or most, leaves, it still may survive.
Cut if back if leggy, and give better care. If summer, you can
place plants outdoors and they may leaf out. You also can put
healthy plants with leaves out for the summer. Just make sure to
bring in on cool nights, and don’t put plants out into direct sun.
If plants start having leggy growth, or are getting too tall, they
can be pruned back to just above a leaf to keep then shorter and to
encourage branching. Plants seldom flower indoors, but outdoors in
the tropics they may produce panicles of tiny red flowers in summer,
followed by small orange fruit.
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