Umbrella houseplants or Schefflera are a group of epiphytic, hemiepiphytic or terrestrial trees or shrubs found in the family Araliaceae, which is comprised of around 300 accepted species. They can be found in Central and Southern America, parts of Asia and Australia in tropical forests at mid to high elevations.
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What draws houseplant enthusiasts to Schefflera are their palmate compound leaves that come in an array of beautiful shapes and sizes depending on the species, resembling the fingers and palm of a hand with a number of leaflets attached together at the centre.
There are two species of Schefflera suited to growing indoors. Both originate from lower down in the canopy of rainforests and prefer indirect, bright light. They are also adapted to the drier environments and don’t need high humidity to thrive.
Schefflera actinophylla is a multi-stemmed, hemiepiphytic tree that grows up other trees with up to 15 leaflets per leaf. It originates from Australia, the Pacific Islands and Java, and can grow up to 15m. In a pot it won’t get quite this big but given the right conditions it can quickly outgrow its space, so a more popular option is Schefflera arboricola. Known as the dwarf umbrella tree, this is a smaller version of S. actinophylla that originates from the south Asian forests of Taiwan and Hainan and can grow to more than 3m indoors. It too is multi-stemmed, and pinching out will encourage a bushier, more stable plant. Plants produce no hard wood and are prone to snapping easily so be careful when wiring and shaping stems, choosing the younger shoots.
There are various cultivars of S. arboricola, some with variegated or golden colourings to their leaves. Schefflera arboricola variegated, for example, has patches of cream, which generally run around the ends of leaves but can also cover the whole leaf, while Schefflera arboricola ‘Gold Capella’ has streaks of yellow running through its leaves.
How to look after a Schefflera plant
They are from the rainforest
Like most plants that originate from the understorey of rainforest canopy they love bright but indirect light. If grown in a slightly darker place they will just grow more slowly and plants may become drawn and leggy.
Keep turning them
Turn your plant every week to keep it straight and prevent it from falling as it leans over towards the light.
Underwatering is OK, but overwatering is not
Schefflera are forgiving plants for forgetful waterers but overwatering can cause root and stem rot.
Watch out for attack
Schefflera can be prone to pest attack, particularly from spider mites and soft scale insects. Spider mites feed by piercing and sucking plant tissue and thrive in dry conditions. During hotter weather, they will reproduce quickly so check regularly – in fact checking over your plant whenever you water to pick up problems early is one of the best things you can do with all houseplants to keep them healthy. To spot the first signs of spider mite, look out for speckled chlorosis on the top of the leaf. Turn it over, and if you look closely you will be able to see the mites, which are about 1mm long. Treat with soapy water on a cloth or spray, and monitor closely in the following few weeks. You may need to repeat this treatment to stop eggs from hatching.
Look out for soft scale insects
Soft scale insects feed by sucking sap from the plant tissues. When they feed they excrete a sticky, sugary substance called honeydew, which attracts a fungus known as sooty mould. They are highly active crawlers before they permanently settle with their protective shell and can be found particularly along the midrib and veins of the leaves. Look out for sticky shiny patches on the leaf surface, and treat by wiping or picking them off and keep checking back for more on a weekly basis. If a pest becomes established, it is always worth cutting out leaves or pruning out heavily infested areas, and always move a houseplant with a pest away from others in your collection.
Jess Snowball is glasshouse manager at the Chelsea Physic Garden, London.