When you first bring home your new pothos plant, you might start to notice a few brown roots protruding from the nodes of the lowest growth. These roots are known as aerial roots, which are what the plant uses in nature to hold itself up.
In their natural environment, pothos plants will use these aerial roots, which are quite different from the roots that live underneath the soil, for quite a few purposes related to survival. Rather than absorb nutrients from the soil that come from eroded plant matter on the floors of tropical rainforests, these roots have figured out how to pull them straight from the air.
In fact, pothos’ aerial roots are the perfect adaptation to the ultimate fight for survival in environments like these. In a rainforest, it’s warm, humid, and sunny; however, most plants are in an active arms race for access to sunlight. Towering trees block out a great deal of the natural light that makes its way onto the forest floor, and so many of the plants native to the Solomon Islands, like pothos, have taken to climbing these trees in an effort to photosynthesize.
Once you’re familiar with how these plants behave in the wild, it makes sense to try to replicate their habitat to help them thrive in your space. While pothos can technically survive without their aerial roots, they can grow to be much bigger and healthier if those roots are well cared for.
Why Aerial Roots Are Important
The aerial roots on pothos plants not only help to absorb nutrients and moisture from the air to help support the plant, but they also serve as convenient scaffolding that helps the plants anchor themselves onto the bark of trees that are tall enough to reach more abundant light. In fact, without these “extra” roots, pothos would not be able to compete with other plants in the rainforest.
Aerial roots can also serve as feelers. They’re sent out from nodes to explore the nearby vicinity in search of places to anchor, additional sources of moisture, sunlight, and nutrients. These roots can also be a great asset if a pothos plant happens to fall away from its host tree: they can help to root the fallen vines into the ground in a form of self-propagation, which overall increases the plant’s fitness (helps it reproduce).
It’s also a huge bonus that pothos plants with healthy aerial roots are also more likely to produce those giant, gorgeous leaves that we all dream of. Some pothos species simply won’t grow enormous leaves, like neon pothos and Cebu blue, but less variegated species like golden pothos are great candidates for the luxe jungle look.
Suggested read: Check out our complete pothos propagation guide which includes step by step instructions with pictures to guide you along the way!
How to Maintain Aerial Pothos Roots
Proper care is an absolute must if you plan on growing your pothos to its fullest potential. We’ve made it easy for you with this quick guide on keeping those aerial roots happy and healthy.
Native to the Solomon Islands, where it’s warm and humid, pothos plants are accustomed to conditions that are actually quite similar to how we prefer to live. The only major difference is that while pothos tends to prefer very humid air, we generally prefer it a bit less heavy. Not to worry though, humidity can easily be achieved in controlled amounts within your space.
Instead of cranking up the humidity all over the house, try to place your pothos in a room that is more humid by design. Bathrooms with bright windows and kitchens tend to be the most humid, but if your plant still doesn’t seem to be growing steadily, you may need to add some humidity.
It’s easy to do; humidifiers are wonderful for creating a small bubble of moisture for your plants to thrive in. Simply set one up for daily use close to your pothos plant, and its aerial roots will thank you. Otherwise, you can try the pebble tray method, which helps to diffuse moisture directly into the air around your plants. Just set a tray full of pebbles and water underneath or nearby your pothos and fill it when it empties.
If size doesn’t matter to you, pothos plants can be kept in somewhat small containers with regular pruning. However, if you want your pothos plant to grow long, flowing vines, you may want to consider upgrading from the typical premade houseplant soil mixture sold in bags at the local hardware store.
A good place to start is with an aroid mix, which will typically contain a fair amount of aerating components including orchid bark, leca, perlite, or pumice. These components are similar to what pothos plants are accustomed to encountering in their natural habitat, so adding them into the mix can help them feel at home in their containers.
The soil should also contain moisture-retention materials, such as coco coir, sphagnum moss, peat, or humous. Avoid using sand, which is best for terrestrial plants. Essentially, you’ll be aiming for a balance between aerating components and those that retain some moisture; this is pretty close to the way wet tree bark and moss supply moisture to pothos aerial roots in the wild.
In recent years, aroid soils have become more mainstream, and you can even find quality mixes in specialty plant shops and online (rely on reviews to find the best products). You can even start with a pre-mixed aroid soil as a base, and then add your own components to make sure your pothos has everything it needs to produce strong roots.
Planting pothos in the right soil is one thing, but planting it in the right container is another very important part of supporting your plant so that it can grow to its full potential.
It’s a known fact that pothos plants that don’t get much light also don’t produce much growth; this same rule also applies to their aerial roots. Bright, indirect light is best, since it’s similar to the light levels that pothos plants receive in their sunny, warm, and tropical native environments.
The Case For Moss Poles
Arguably one of the most reliable ways to grow big, beefy aerial roots is by using a moss pole to provide support and moisture to the upper levels of the plant. Moss poles have made a huge debut in recent years, being featured in nearly every type of media that covers tropical indoor plants.
While it’s nice to have the added aesthetic effects of a moss pole (who doesn’t love the look?), these things are endlessly useful. And that applies to growing aerial roots on your pothos plants. Not all moss poles are alike, though, so make sure you choose the right one for your pothos plants.
Poles made of wooden dowels and wrapped in coconut husk are among the most common types of moss poles, and these work great in humid environments. They aren’t the best at holding onto moisture, but given generous exposure to it (think a humidifier), they can retain enough to encourage your pothos to attach new aerial roots to them.
Moss poles that are made with any kind of mesh, whether that be plastic or coated metal, need to be filled with a growing medium. Here’s the thing: the medium should be somewhere on a sliding scale of orchid bark and sphagnum moss. The more humid it is in your space, the more orchid bark there should be; on the other hand, lower humidity calls for more sphagnum moss. There should never be more than 50% more orchid bark than sphagnum moss.
Using too much orchid bark will cause the mixture to dry quickly, which can in turn dry out the aerial roots of your pothos. Be sure to regularly mist or water any type of moss pole you end up with, whether you purchase one or make it yourself.