Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
When I was working in corporate offices, one of my favorite plants was the umbrella plant. I loved the shape of the leaves and how tough it was to be able to survive in that environment. I also wondered why I never saw it in people’s homes. It turns out there is a very good reason why most people don’t grow this plant in their homes.
What is an Umbrella Plant?
The umbrella plant (Schefflera arboricola) is also known as the Dwarf Umbrella Tree. It is related to the umbrella tree (Schefflera actinophylla), but is much smaller. The umbrella plant is an evergreen shrub that is native to Taiwan. It is hardy in zones 10 through 12. Outdoors, it grows to 10 – 15 feet. Grown in a container indoors, it only grows to 8 – 10 feet.
The reason that the plants are called “umbrella” is because of its unusual leaves. Rather than leaves lining the branches, the leaves are arranged like the ribs of an umbrella at the ends of the stems. Smaller plants have only 3 to 5 leaves at the end of each stem while older, larger plants can have up to 12 leaves at the end of each stem. The leaves are a solid green. Newer cultivars have variegated leaves with either cream or gold variegation.
Umbrella plants flower when grown outdoors. Plants grown indoors rarely flower. The flowers are red, pink or white and grow in clusters called umbels. The umbels grow in panicles. Panicles are clusters of flowers that grow at the ends of the stems. In this case, the panicles look a lot like fingers made of flowers.
The flowers mature into drupes. Drupes look like berries but instead of a fruit with seeds inside, a drupe is a fruit which has a pit inside. The pit contains the seeds. The drupes on umbrella plants are orange and about ¼ inch in diameter. These drupes will ripen to a black color.
Are Umbrella Plants Poisonous?
The reason why you rarely see umbrella plants grown in homes is that they are poisonous. If nibbled by pets or children, they are fatal. The leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals. These crystals cannot be dissolved by the body. Because they are crystals, they have sharp edges which damage the tissues and organs when they are eaten. Symptoms of poisoning include swelling of the tongue and lips, drooling, diarrhea, vomiting and cardiac arrhythmia. Do not grow umbrella plant in your home if you have children or pets. It is best grown in households that are adult only and pet-free.
How to Grow an Umbrella Plant Outdoors
If you are fortunate enough to live in a tropical area, you will be able to grow your umbrella plant outdoors year-round. The plants can grow in direct sun if they get afternoon shade. They grow best in light shade. Direct sun all day will result in yellowed leaves. Grow your umbrella plant in soil that is well-drained. Soil that is constantly wet will result in root rot. Despite their reputation as heavy feeders, when grown outdoors the only fertilizer that you will need to give your plant is a thick layer of compost in the spring. Be sure to give it plenty of room. It grows to 10 – 15 feet in height and 10 feet in diameter.
How to Grow an Umbrella Plant Indoors
Most of us grow umbrella plants indoors in containers. We only put them outdoors in the summer when the night-time temperatures are above 60⁰F. Keep your indoor plant out of direct sun when you put it outdoors. It is accustomed to the dim light of your home and cannot adapt to bright sunlight outdoors. Keep it in a shady corner of your yard or patio. Indoors, indirect light is best. I’ve found that shade lovers like the umbrella plant do best in a north facing room which gets a few brief hours of sunlight each day.
Temperature is just as important indoors as it is outdoors. These are tropical plants that need both heat and humidity. Keep your plant away from drafty windows and doors, and heat and air conditioning vents. If your plant is dropping its leaves, it is too cold. Move it to a warmer room.
You can plant your umbrella plants in containers using regular potting soil. Keep it evenly moist during the growing season, but cut back on watering in the winter. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings. And no matter what time of year it is, empty the saucer after watering. Do not allow your plant to sit in water.
When grown in containers, umbrella plants are heavy feeders, meaning they need a lot of nutrients. If you use a liquid fertilizer, apply it every two weeks during the growing season. A good alternative to liquid fertilizer is slow release fertilizer pellets scattered on top of the soil. Every time you water, a little bit of fertilizer is released.
Repot your umbrella plant every year, giving it a slightly larger pot each time. You can slow down the growth of your plant if you repot it less often.
How to Grow an Umbrella Plant From a Cutting
Umbrella plants root easily from cuttings. Choose a newer stem, one that is still actively growing and cut it from the main plant. Apply some rooting hormone to the tip and gently press about an inch of it into moist soil in a pot. Umbrella plants like high humidity, so place a plastic bag over the container to create that humid environment. Root should start to develop in about 4 weeks.
How to Grow an Umbrella Plant Using Air Layering
Air layering is a technique that is similar to layering. Instead of bending a stem down to the ground to encourage it to grow roots in the soil, you will be encouraging the plant to grow roots from an existing stem that doesn’t touch the soil.
The first step is to “wound” the stem. This is done by making 2 parallel cuts on the stem and then connect them top and bottom so that you are able to peel the outer layer of the stem away. Alternatively, if the stem is not thick enough for this method, make a single cut in the stem and shove a toothpick in to hold it open. You want to expose the inner or Cambrian layer which is where the roots will form.
You can add rooting hormone to the expose layer if you want. Then you wrap that wound with pre-moistened sphagnum moss and then wrap the moss in plastic to make sure that it doesn’t dry out. When you see roots through the plastic, you can cut the stem away from the plant, carefully unwrap it and then plant it in container. Cover the container with plastic to create a humid environment while your cutting continues to grow out its root system.
© 2019 Caren White
Caren White (author) on July 10, 2020:
No you cannot root this plant. I know because I have tried. You can only propagate it via layering.
Kenna OMelveny on July 10, 2020:
Can you propagate from a single leaf?
Caren White (author) on May 27, 2020:
It's a wonderful plant. So glad yours recovered and you are still enjoying it.
Eddie & Mary on May 23, 2020:
We have had this umbrella plant for 2 years and it looks great. We did make the mistake of putting it outside on our balcony where the sun took a hold of it but we quickly realized to bring it into the house immediately. It has recovered very nicely and we are still enjoying at the ages of 81...
Bob Ewing from New Brunswick on June 30, 2019:
I do not yet have an umbrella plant but, if I can find a space for one, this will change. Thanks.