Some people call it an umbrella plant, others call it the schefflera. Ask any houseplant collector, and they’ll tell you that the umbrella plant is one of the easiest, most enjoyable indoor plants around. It works in any room, is easy and straightforward to grow, and comes in a variety of leaf types and colors. If you live in plant hardiness zones 10 through 15, where the temperatures don’t drop below 35 degrees, you can even grow this plant outdoors.
The name many people recognize for this plant, schefflera, refers to two different species, Schefflera arboricola and Schefflera actinophylla. They look similar and their care is, too. However, the S. arboricola can reach heights of 30 feet outdoors or about 10 feet when you grow it indoors. You’ll also find dwarf versions of this plant available. S. actinophylla is the larger of the two species, which botanists classify as a hemiepiphytic tree. It can grow to heights of 50 feet outdoors and longer leaves that reach between four to five inches long. Umbrella plants are toxic to dogs and cats.
Whether you grow them indoors or outdoors, you can expect your umbrella plant to quickly grow and flourish. Keeping it warm and away from drafts is essential. Apply heat mats under the container if you place the plant in a cooler room. Allow the soil to dry out completely between waterings, then soak it thoroughly. Overwatering can kill a schefflera. Provide it with plenty of indirect, bright light, but never place it in direct sun or its leaves will burn. It grows well in sandy loam soil with a pH that’s acidic to slightly alkaline.
Growing the umbrella plant outdoors isn’t difficult if you live in an area within its hardiness zones. Gardeners in Southern California, Florida, and Arizona frequently use them as centerpiece or landscape plants in their gardens and they live for many years. When growing outside, keep an eye on the moisture level of the soil around the plant. It will dry out more quickly than indoor plant soil does. Some plants require staking for support.
In areas with high levels of humidity, an outdoor umbrella plant will bloom with red, white, or pink fingerlike flower clusters in the summer. Although indoor plants rarely bloom, you can place it outdoors when the weather is warm and humid to see if it will flower. Once the schefflera blossom matures, it becomes a drupe, a small berry-like fruit with a pit inside. The drupe, which isn’t edible, eventually turns black.
You’ll find several interesting, attractive leaf variations for the umbrella plant. The "Sun Burst" variety has solid yellow leaves with green edges. "Luseane" grows smaller, dark-green variegated leaves that form a compact, yet lush foliage, while the "Luseane Ivory" displays ivory-yellow variegations on dark-green leaves. If you’re looking for smaller varieties, try the S. "Petite," a smaller-growing species with variegated leaves in shades of green and yellow.
There is a wide array of opinions when it comes to fertilizing and feeding an umbrella plant. Some say twice-a-week to weekly feedings during the growing season are essential. Others say once per month with a balanced liquid fertilizer is sufficient for strong growth. If you do feed more frequently, use half-strength fertilizer, applied when watering.
If you wish to maintain its shape and increase its fullness, prune the fast-growing schefflera often. You’ll be amazed at how quickly it bounces back even if you over-prune it a bit. Cut off the tops of the tallest stalks. Thin out thick clumps to ensure that light is reaching all parts of the plant. A lack of light leads to legginess and bald areas on your plant. You can also rotate the plant occasionally to even out leaf growth.
While umbrella plants aren’t the easiest plants to propagate, you can create new plants from cuttings. In the summer, cut a few six-inch stems from your plant. Strip all of the leaves from the stem except for the top two. Push the cut end about one or two inches into a container you’ve filled with potting soil. Every couple of years, in the spring, repot your plant. Allow your umbrella plant time to recover and don’t move it for several weeks after the process.
The dwarf schefflera makes an excellent bonsai. Not only are they easy to maintain, but they also grow more vigorously than traditional bonsai. Use wire to train and shape the limbs and then prune off all the leaves from the stalk. The following year, remove only the larger leaves. Repeat the process each year until you’re growing consistently sized leaves. Mist the bonsai every day and feed every few weeks with half-strength fertilizer.