Whether you’re a beginner, self-declared “brown thumb”, or houseplant veteran, the undemanding schefflera – a.k.a. umbrella tree – makes a great addition to any household.
This guide will delve into umbrella tree care and learn the simple steps to having this lush fellow flourishing in your home.
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY – Beginner
Beginner’s Guide to Umbrella Tree Care
Umbrella trees are popular, quick growing plants with distinctive oval shaped leaves that resemble fingers. The leaves grow in circular groups and can be variegated or solid green. Other common names for this plant include parasol plant and octopus tree.
The most well known species are the Schefflera arboricola (the dwarf umbrella tree), and its close relative Schefflera actinophylla.
Size is the main difference between the two.
As the name implies, the dwarf umbrella tree, S. arboricola, is a smaller version of S. acinophylla.
Whereas the larger schefflera will have leaves that are 4-5 inches and longer, a dwarf umbrella tree has leaves 4-5 inches and shorter. Another difference is in height. Indoors, S. acinophylla and can grow to 6 – 10 feet, while S. arboricola will grow 4 – 8 feet.
Lastly, a number of dwarf umbrella tree varieties have variegated leaves, but S. acinophylla leaves tend to be solid green.
Both plants can be pruned to maintain a reasonable height and care for either species is basically the same.
Water & Humidity
Scheffleras are tropical plants and like a moister environment. However, overwatering can be a problem with umbrella tree care, especially for the new plant owner.
First, give your plant a good soaking, letting the water flow from the drainage holes. Then allow the soil to dry out a bit, maybe 50-75%, before watering again. Make sure your pot has good drainage and your plant is not sitting in a pool of water.
If the leaves are yellowing or browning, dropping off, or becoming droopy, that can be a sign of improper watering.
Unfortunately, as both over and underwatering can cause leaf issues, you might need to do a little digging to get to the bottom of the problem. This article from Fiddle & Thorn delves a bit deeper into scheffleras and watering issues.
Scheffleras like humidity, so it’s best to keep them in a spot where the air stays as moist as possible. If you like, you can place a pebble tray underneath your umbrella tree to increase the humidity.
Occasionally giving them a spritz and wiping down the leaves will also help with dust build-up, which in turn will help keep your plant healthy and happy.
Light & Temperature
Though it prefers bright light, an umbrella tree can be placed in moderate to lower light; however, the growth might slow a little and you might find your schefflera becoming leggy and floppy.
If you have a variegated variety, lower light may affect the leaves’ colouring as well.
As you can see, my plant has a mix of green and variegated leaves. Originally, he was sitting in a northwest facing window, and I suspect the lower light affected the variegation level. I’ve since moved him to a little brighter spot and the variegation has picked up a bit.
Also, it’s a good idea to occasionally turn your umbrella tree so that all sides are exposed to the brightest light. This is especially important if you notice one side of the tree growing fuller than the other. Or, if like my plant below, you find them stretching towards the light.
As for temperature, scheffleras like a moderate to a warmer temperature. In the home, 65 – 75 degrees F will keep them happy.
In warmer climates, both S. acinophylla and S. arboricola can be grown outdoors, where heights can reach up to 50 feet. However, if you’re planting your umbrella tree outdoors, make sure the temperature does not drop below 60 degrees F.
One other thing to note, S. acinophylla can be considered an invasive species, so keep this in mind if planting outdoors.
Your umbrella tree might like water, but it’s not so thrilled with soggy feet. In other words, good umbrella tree care means using a well draining soil. An all purpose soil with perlite or sand is a good choice.
Want to know a little more about soils? Check out my post on bagged soils.
Maintaining Your Umbrella Tree
Once you have your plant settled in its new living space, you’ll want to turn your attention to maintaining your schefflera. Luckily, umbrella trees are easy houseplants and overall don’t need a whole lot to maintain their foliage.
With their fast growth, fertilizing a shefflera is not a must. However, if you’d like to give your plant a bit of a boost, or are wanting to speed its growth further, you can use a balanced liquid fertilizer.
When doing so, you’ll want to dilute the fertilizer to half the recommended strength. Fertilize once a month during the growing season when it’s producing new leaves.
Pruning can be one of the biggest tasks when it comes to umbrella tree care. This is especially true if you want your schefflera to maintain a certain height or look. Remember, these guys are fast growers. And indoors, where light is less, they can become leggy.
Luckily, umbrella trees like to be pruned. And they rebound quickly. So don’t be afraid to prune aggressively.
Start with cutting off anything that appears leggy or overgrown. In addition, remove any dead or dying leaves.
To make it thicker and keep its height manageable, you can cut off the top of the stalk making your cut about an inch above the leaf node – the point at which the leaves join the stem. This will encourage the plant to grow outwards, making it fuller, as well as upwards.
Tip – if you’re a new plant parent, take pruning into consideration when purchasing an umbrella tree. If you don’t have the time or inclination for this task, then a schefflera may not be the plant for you.
Umbrella tree care also includes repotting your plant as it grows. In general, plan on moving your Schefflera to a larger pot about once every two to three years, once you start noticing the roots breaking through the top or bottom of the soil.
When choosing a pot, look for one a size or two larger than its current container. These guys are tall growing, top heavy plants so make sure you use a sturdy pot.
Additionally, as your Schefflera grows, you may need to provide support for its trunk.
The simplest way to propagate your schefflera is to grow a stem cutting in soil or water. With either method, you’ll start by using a clean, sharp knife or pruners, to cut at least 4 to 6 inches of stem.
Just like with pruning, you’ll make the cut slightly above the leaf node. By the way, given that regular pruning is part of good umbrella tree care, a great time to propagate is in the spring right after a pruning. Leftover cuttings often make ideal propagating material.
Tip – Need a gift for a special occasion? Newly propagated plants can make fun, easy gifts!
Once you have your cuttings, remove the bottom leaves.
It’s important to not let the stem dry out. So, if you’re not rooting the cutting immediately, then wrap the stem in a damp paper towel. Keep the towel wet until you’re ready to root the cutting.
Rooting In Water:
Once your stem is ready, place it in room temperature water. Keep your plant in a moderately bright spot, but not somewhere with direct sunlight.
Once the plant starts growing roots – which make take several weeks – transplant it into a pot with well draining soil. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy.
Rooting In Soil:
Using fresh potting soil, poke a hole in the soil’s surface and place your cutting inside. Then, firm the soil around it.
As an additional option, you can dip the end of the cutting in rooting hormone before placing it in the soil. This can help stimulate root growth.
Baby scheffleras like humidity, so creating a tent of plastic over the plant will help keep in the moisture. If you do, make sure the plastic isn’t touching the leaves directly. Also, you’ll need to remove the tent for a period of time each day to give the plant some air.
Alternately, you can use a humidity dome and tray, which will help create a more humid environment for your umbrella tree.
Keep your potting soil slightly moist. It’s very important the mixture doesn’t become too soggy or too dry. And, as with water rooting, place your growing schefflera in a moderately bright spot with no direct sun.
You should start to see new growth in a few weeks. Once you do, you can transplant your umbrella tree into a slightly larger pot.
Pests & Problems
As with any houseplant care, good umbrella tree care also means keeping an eye out for insects or signs of disease.
Spider mites and mealybugs are the most common pest problems with scheffleras. Signs of an infestation can include:
- leaves becoming pocked or discolored
- webbing between the branches
- sticky residue on leaves and branches
Whether spider mites or mealybugs or any other insect, the minute you notice a problem, separate the plant from your other plants. This will help prevent the pests from spreading.
You can start your treatment process by giving the plant a good bath or spray to help manually remove as many of the bugs as possible.
Keeping your humidity levels up with help with the spider mites – they don’t like it.
If you’re noticing a sticky residue and suspect mealybugs, you can use a cotton swab dabbed in rubbing alcohol to wipe down the leaves and stems.
There are a number of homemade as well as commercial options available to address pest problems. Start by contacting your local garden center for advice. And no matter what treatment route you decide to take, begin treating the problem immediately.
A schefflera may develop leaf spots, which can be fungal or bacterial in nature. If you notice discolored spots on your leaf, remove the infected leaves. You may need to treat it with a fungicide.
Again, your local garden center should have fungicide treatment options available. If possible, bring in a sample of a leaf that’s showing signs of disease.
Root rot is another problem that can develop with your umbrella tree. Root rot can be caused by overwatering or a fungus. You may see leaves yellowing and the plant just overall looking poorly or stunted.
In the case of root rot, you may need to remove the plant from the pot and inspect the roots. Roots in general should be firm and white. If the roots are mushy or black, that’s a good sign of root issues.
As with insects, treat root rot or any disease immediately. If left too long, you may not be able to save the plant.
Schefflera plants develop calcium oxalate crystals which can be mildly toxic to people and animals, particularly when ingested. On a rare occasion, you can develop a rash by handling the plant, so when pruning you might want to wear gloves.
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