Florida's Most Phallic Flowers: Philodendron

Phallic Flowers:  Philodendron bipinnatifidum (Split-leaf Philodendron)

#1 Split-leaf Philodendron

(Philodendron bipinnatifidum)

Both of my picks for Florida's most phallic flowers are non-natives that happen to be blooming mid-May as I write this post. I chose the Split-leaf philodendron because of its incredibly large and phallic bloom and because it is common across Florida. Note that some people call this species the "horse head philodendron."

While Split-leaf Philodendron has a magnificent flower it has difficulties finding pollinators in Florida because its native range is in the Brazilian rainforests. In Brazil the plant evolved to attract the scarab beetle (dung beetle) for its pollination needs.

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The long white part of the philodendron flower is called the spadix. The green part surrounding it like a cape is called the spathe. When the spathe is open, the plant is ready to be pollinated.

Philodendron bipinnatifidum spadix close up

These philodendrons have a unique reproductive biology. A philodendron must be mature before it can begin flowering, which takes a staggering 15-16 years. Once the plant reaches maturity, it will flower every May to July, signaling to pollinators that it is ready to reproduce.

Split-leaf Philodendron Bloom

Philodendrons have separate male and female parts, meaning the plant cannot self-pollinate and needs the help of an outside pollinator. For the philodendrons, reproduction works differently depending on where they are in the world because their location determines what pollinator is going to help them reproduce. A philodendron in its native Brazil, for example, has evolved to rely exclusively on the scarab beetle to help with pollination. Scarab beetles are less common outside the tropics but do occur in Florida. So philodendrons outside the tropics will generally need the help of humans for pollination. A few plants in Central and South Florida might be able to reproduce naturally if some scarab beetles happen to be around when the flower blooms.

The flower of the philodendron is only open for two days, and each plant will have two to three blooms that open up at different times over the blooming period.

Phallic Flowers:  Split-leaf Philodendron

A philodendron bloom is about 12 inches from stem to tip, and the optinal time for pollination is in the middle of the night. Nighttime is also when the bloom has its strongest fragrance.

You can tell when a philodendron is ready for reproduction by its spadix—the long white part of the flower. The spadix doesn't produce a specific color or pattern though it is very fragrant, instead it creates heat to attract pollinators. The spadix can reach temperatures of up to 114°F (45½°C). The heat attracts the beetle as it crawls into the flower looking for warmth. While entering the flower, the beetle walks over the spadix and pollinates the philodendron.

Philodendron Bloom with very large spadix

The heating up of philodendrons during reproduction isn't unique, but philodendrons create heat differently than any other plant. Most of the time plants create heat by burning carbohydrates, or simple sugars, that are stored in their cells. But philodendrons burn stores of fat, just as an animal would, because this is a better source of energy to maintain their very hot temperature. Even when it gets colder outside at night, the philodendron can keep burning its stores of fat to continue producing heat.

Split-leaf Philodendron leaf

To self-pollinate your philodendron you need to rub pollen on the female part of the spadix (the bottom, plumper half) in the middle of the night, when the flower is most likely to reproduce. You'll know if you've been successful when the philodendron produces fruit. One note: If you're lucky enough to produce fruit on your philodendron the fruit is poisonous, so don't taste!

Philodendron bipinnatifidum cape closed over spadix with finger for scale

I have another trick to encourage the dung beetles. Surround the base of the philodendron with used cat litter. The litter attracts beetles which then do the work. The cat litter also acts as a fertilizer. This doesn't work with all plants but philodendron is quite happy with a weekly dose of used cat litter fertilizer (plam trees also green up when treated to used cat litter as food).