Questions on: Schefflera

Ron Smith, Horticulturist, NDSU Extension Service


Q: I have had my schefflera plant for several years. I’ve transplanted it twice. It has been happy, healthy and growing well until this last weekend. The leaves and stems on one side of the plant have turned a mottled yellow and are dropping off. I have a south-facing, sunny location for the plant. I thought that if I turned the plant around and let the other side face the sun, I would see if the other side turns yellow and the leaves start to drop. It is doing that. I water it at least once a week and let it drain. I’ve never had a problem with the plant before. I also treat all of my plants with an insecticide about every six to eight weeks. Nothing has affected this plant before, so I am puzzled! (e-mail reference)

A: Something's up, but I don't know what it could be based on what you told me. Go to http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/plantsci/landscap/pp744w.htm to see if you can find something more specific that may help you determine what is causing the leaf drop. This publication, dealing with houseplant problems, was written by a plant pathologist who had ample experience in diagnosing houseplant maladies. If there is an answer to be found, it probably will be found there.


Q: I bought a schefflera plant from a nursery that assured me that the lack of light in my north-facing apartment would not be a problem. After reading some of the postings on your Web site, I realize that advice was very wrong. The plant has started dropping leaves, particularly around the bottom of the stalk. Is there any hope of saving the poor guy? My kitchen has fluorescent lights, so if I put the plant in the kitchen at night with the light on, would that help? (e-mail reference)

A: The problem might be more easily solved if you simply obtained a plant light or two that you could direct on the plant. Fluorescent lighting will do the trick, but it often is too weak by the time it reaches the leaf surfaces to do much good. Schefflera is a medium light plant, which means it needs about 200 or more foot candles of light for about 12 hours a day to look its best. You can acquire these lights with timers at any discount store that handles garden supplies. What has happened to your plant is that it came from a nursery or florist that had it under optimal light conditions. When you moved it to your low-light apartment, the plant was not acclimated to this new setting, so it began dropping leaves. In a perfect world, the plant should have gone through stages of gradual light reduction that would be equal to the average light setting of an apartment in your location. During that period of acclimation, old leaves would have dropped and new ones emerged that would have been better adapted to the new environment. Since our world is less than perfect, the results are usually what you described. Plant acclimation is something that most retailers cannot afford to do because houseplant pricing is a very competitive business. These days, truckloads are harvested in places such as south Florida or south Texas. The plants are potted in the field and sent very cheaply to discount stores across the country. The plants look good initially, but many deteriorate to the point of disposal by the new owner within a few months.


Q: I found your Web site while looking up information on how to salvage my schefflera. My question is similar to those on the site, but I'm confused (I know nothing about plants). What do I do with the long stalks that don't have leaves? Does cutting the thick stalks induce branching and foliage? If I cut them off, will new growth start? (e-mail reference)

A: Your poor schefflera needs two changes. The plant needs a heavy pruning and more light! Cut those old stalks back to 3 or 4 inches. Move the pot to an area where there is more light. If you can't do it with natural sources, get some plant lights. Turn on the lights for at least 12 hours a day.


Q: I hope you can help me with my once healthy schefflera plant that I’ve had for several years. It seemed to need increasing amounts of water, so I repotted it to a larger pot. As I was repotting, I noticed there was no crowding of the roots along the sides, but there was one extremely long root wrapping around the bottom. I thought that confirmed that the plant needed repotting. A few days after I repotted, one branch began to turn yellow and then fell off. I thought I bumped the branch. Then another branch turned yellow and fell off. It has been more than a month, and each week another branch turns yellow and falls off. The yellowing starts in the main vein of the leaf. A few of the leaves have brown spots. I don't see any bugs or mite webs. The leaves look healthy until the yellowing starts. I have taken the yellow leaves to two local plant stores. They said it could be over or underwatering. I don't think it is a watering problem. I did decrease the watering, but it didn’t make a difference. Your help is much appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: Yellowing and dropping of foliage also is an indication of too little light. Did you replace it in the same location? Did you cut off some of the root? There is a chance the plant will recover or at least quit dropping leaves. Try directing a grow light or two on the plant to see if that helps.


Q: I bought two schefflera plants. We moved shortly after that and I placed them at the ends of my sofa. One is doing well, with very little loss of leaves. The other must be infected with some type of scale insect. Using a magnifying glass, I can see some small scales on the underside of the leaves. The leaves also have black spots that spread and then the leaves fall off. I've also had a few leaves fall off that didn't have the black spots, but they had a tiny scale or two on the underside. I have taken this plant outside twice and wiped the leaves off and sprayed it to cover the mites. It stopped for a while, but has started again. I'm afraid if it doesn't get help soon, I'll have to throw the plant away. What should I put on it to stop these scales and black spots from happening again? I'd appreciate any help you can give me. (e-mail reference)

A: Get a systemic insecticide for houseplants from your local garden center. This is translocated throughout the plant and will kill these tough insects as they feed on the plant. You should move the plant outdoors to do the application. Be sure to follow label directions.


Q: I have been reading about schefflera plants. I have a schefflera that I water once a week. However, some leaves fall off almost every day. I figured out that direct sunlight is bad, so I moved it. Do you have any other suggestions? You mentioned strong, indirect sunlight, but what is that? (e-mail reference)

A: Strong, indirect sunlight means that you keep the plant just outside of the reach of direct light.


Q: My question is about schefflera. It has a skinny trunk and the branches don't start branching out until about a foot up from the pot base. The plant has 23 branches. It seems a new branch starts every week and grows rather fast. It appears healthy, but the branches are weeping down and have put a lot of weight on the trunk, which has caused it to curve. I have solved the problem by tying the trunk to a stake in hopes that it will straighten out. I am wondering how many inches there should be between each branch or how many branches per foot. I have a feeling that I should be cutting back some of the branches, but they aren't unhealthy looking, just weeping. (e-mail reference)

A: Your plant needs more direct and stronger light, which will give it a thicker trunk or stem. I would suggest cutting it back to just above the lowest branch with leaves to see if that forces any new breaks below that point. With the added direct light and the removal of the staking material, it should grow to be a stronger, stockier plant that doesn't need staking. Also, don't push fertilization with a high nitrogen level because it will cause spindly growth.


Q: I was reading your questions and answers on schefflera in search of a treatment for a painful, itchy rash I developed from the one in my front yard. I have to say I was surprised to see how many people adore the plant. I want to destroy mine because every time I work in the yard near it, I break out into a horrible rash within a couple of days. Even when I wear long sleeves and gloves, I get a rash somewhere. The rash lasts at least a week and is a lot like poison ivy rash. Have you heard of any treatments? I know you're a plant expert and not a doctor, but I thought maybe you would have heard of something. I've tried calamine lotion and Benadryl, but got no relief. Ivarest seems to help a little. Also, I've noticed this tree's roots have spread toward the foundation of our house and seem to have strangled to death nearby hibiscus plants. Is this possible? Could the roots pose a problem for our foundation and water pipes? I know this won't go over well with schefflera lovers, but how can I get rid of this thing? I was very disappointed to read that cutting it back to a few inches above the ground won't kill it. I would set mine on fire if it weren't so close to the house. I was thinking I could cut it down and spray the trunk with Roundup. Am I the only person in the world who despises this plant? (e-mail reference)

A: The distinction is yours, but I'm sure others will come forth now that you have broken the code of silence. I wouldn't mess around any longer if I were you. I would suggest going to a dermatologist and describe your problem. You want to get something that will counter any future reactions as quickly as possible. Hire a professional to come out and remove the entire plant, including the roots. Even if the schefflera is dead, you still can get a reaction to it, so make sure the contractor removes all the roots.


Q: I have a schefflera and a rubber plant that were flourishing until our recent move. The new place has less light and the plants don't seem to dry out as frequently. Recently, the schefflera started dropping several leaves a day. I've tried to reduce watering because the soil is not completely dry on top. I'm not sure if it is just the change in environment or something else. Is it worth getting a grow light for the room? (e-mail reference)

A: The foliage drop you describe is often due to sudden reduction in light intensity or duration. The addition of a plant light (get one for foliage production, not flowering as with African violets) would be a major step in reversing this trend. As you have observed, reduce the watering to coincide with the new environment. The soil needs to dry before watering again.


Q: When I bought my schefflera plant at the green house, they sprayed something on it to make the leaves shinny. Is there something I can put on the leaves to bring the shine back? (e-mail reference)

A: The material is called “Leaf Shine.” Imagine that! Be careful not to overuse it because it tends to seal the stomatal openings and slow the plant’s growth somewhat. You might want to learn to appreciate the “natural look” of this plant and shine it up only to impress company.


Q: I have a schefflera that is having some problems. I inherited it from the women who had my apartment before me. It only has a few stalks that have grown out very long and only have leaves at the ends. I have to tie up all the trunks to keep them from splaying out. I am getting new growth on it, but it’s only on the top. Do you have any recommendations on how to make it bushier? Should I prune it back? Just recently, I started getting very bright yellow spots in the center of some leaves that are starting to spread out. There’s a light green “halo” around the yellow spots. The edges of the leaves are still dark green and the undersides look normal. I have searched the Internet, but can’t find any mention of this. Any idea of what’s going on? My other schefflera is doing extremely well. Almost too well because I can’t get it to stop growing! Nevertheless, the other plant always has been a little peculiar. (e-mail reference)

A: Unlike a peculiar relative that you can’t get rid of, the peculiar plant you describe is hardly worth the time you need to put into it. However, I detect a hint of a plant lover in your note, so the above advice probably is not sitting too well. So, I’ll offer some alternative advice. The plant needs stronger and more light. It also needs to be pruned back. Those floppy stems are not going to improve with time. We can’t take the 98-pound weaklings and turn them into pumped-up beauties! The plant also has a fungus that got started in that particular leaf. By cutting it back and disposing of the wimpy, sickly leaves, you will or should be removing the inoculum. Once you have performed the above tasks, I would suggest summering the plant outdoors or at least in an area where there is bright, indirect light. If you place it outdoors, do so under the canopy of a tree or on the north side of your building.


Q: How do I take a cutting from a schefflera and get it to grow? Does it have to root first or can I just replant? (e-mail reference)

A: There are a couple of ways to propagate this plant. You can do it through tip cuttings using bottom heat in the media or through air layering. For information on how to do both, visit my Web site at www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/plantsci/landscap/h1257w.htm.


Q: I was given a schefflera a few years ago during a hospital stay. It gets morning sun in my kitchen in the winter and on the porch during the summer. The problem is that it is growing out and over the pot, but not up! It’s beautiful and thick, but if you stand directly over it, you can see the soil and base branches. It’s probably a foot tall, but 3 1/2 feet wide and getting bigger. I now need to replant it. Is there any way to get it to grow upwards? (e-mail reference)

A: Stake it and then try to remember to rotate the plant when the sun is coming from a single direction. You also can correct the problem by placing a grow light directly above the plant to encourage it to grow in a vertical orientation. The plant also would benefit from being summered outdoors after the danger of frost is past and brought indoors before any cold weather moves in at the end of summer.


Q: I have a question about my schefflera. Originally, the plant was in a shallow casserole-type pot. It had four trunks, all with healthy foliage. I was concerned that the pot did not drain properly because there were no holes in the bottom. I transplanted the plant into a deep pot, with a layer of gravel at the bottom and built-in drainage holes. The largest trunk and foliage seem unchanged, but the foliage on the three smaller trunks is wilting more and more each day. I mist them and give them plenty of light, but they don’t seem to be getting any better. (e-mail reference)

A: Repot and get rid of the gravel in the bottom. Keep it in a free-draining pot with a saucer under it. To keep the soil from washing out with each watering, place a stone over each of the holes. This will allow drainage to take place without the perched water table that you are creating with the gravel in the bottom.


Q: What is air-layering? I have a tall, skinny schefflera. You’ve talked about air-layering when you cut it back. In addition, can you root the plant cuttings in water? (e-mail reference)

A: That’s a good question. The answer is in the “Home Propagation Techniques” bulletin. The bulletin is available on the Web at www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/plantsci/landscap/h1257w.htm. You can root cuttings in water, but difficulties often come up when transplanting the cuttings into a potting soil mixture. You are better off rooting them in a media, such as sand/peat, and then moving the root mass and media into the container you will be keeping it in.


Q: I saw your question-and-answer Web site about schefflera. I was hoping for some help concerning mine. I’ve had it for about three months. My concern is that it hasn’t grown at all since I’ve had it. It doesn’t appear to be dead. Any advice on what might be going on? (e-mail reference)

A: You are being too impatient. The plant is in a rest period for the winter. When you see new growth beginning to emerge, you can encourage it to grow by using diluted fertilizer solutions. Doing so now will not help the plant. It’s sort of like someone offering you a pizza after eating a big spaghetti dinner! You can’t eat the pizza right now, but bring it on hours later when you are hungry! As long as the plant is otherwise healthy, you don’t have anything to worry about. Make sure you don’t overwater the plant.


Q: A few days ago, my family and I started noticing a somewhat fishy smell in the house, but we had not cooked any fish! We discovered the smell is coming from my healthy schefflera plant. I recall this also happened a couple of years ago. Any thoughts on this? What can I do other than throw the plant away? (e-mail reference)

A: Don’t throw the plant away! Repot it with fresh potting soil. The original soil in the container was probably enriched with fish oil or renderings as a source of fertilizer. Look for Schultz’s or Miracle-Gro material. I’ve had good luck with both.


Q: I have a schefflera that has two big trunks. The trunks don’t have leaves except on top. Is there a way I can get the trunk to sprout more leaves? (e-mail reference)

A: If you are brave enough, you can try a couple of things. Cut the plant back to about 4- to 6-inch stubs and see what grows, or go to my Web site at www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/plantsci/landscap/h1257w.htm. There you will find asexual propagation techniques, such as air layering and taking cuttings. Simply cutting it back should force it to produce adventitious buds that will result in a bushy plant.


Q: I received three schefflera plants in one pot more than a year ago. Last summer I transferred them to new pots. Immediately I saw new growth. Then dark brown-black spots developed at the node of one of them. The spots moved up and slowly killed the new growth that had developed. I cut off the discolored area, but a black coloring started below in the healthy looking stem. The spots eventually covered the whole plant. Now something similar is happening to another plant. (e-mail reference)

A: The schefflera (Brassaia spp.) plants are suffering from a stem canker fungus brought on from the stress of repotting. Repotting often weakens the plant’s various resistance mechanisms. The plants went through an abrupt change from their “three-in-a-pot” environment to each one having a container. Very likely the roots were damaged during the process of transplanting, along with the likely fact that the plants were not all that vigorous to begin with. If the visual symptoms of the canker already have been noted on the remaining plant, you might as well throw it away. If the symptoms are absent, then try to find a product called Fungicide 3 put out by the Schultz company. It is a neem tree product that is safe to use on interior plants and also has insecticidal and miticidal activity. Whatever you do, don’t try to push the plant by overwatering or fertilizing. Try to locate it in as ideal an environment as you can find in your home and monitor it carefully. New growth should appear in a month or two, depending on its location to direct light.


Q: I just purchased a schefflera plant at an on-clearance, green-thumb-wanted sale. Admittedly, my green thumb is only the palest green and I don’t have much luck with fussy house plants, but I thought I’d give it a shot. Four days after bringing it home, a dark brown color appeared on one stem all the way up to the leaves. The coloring is starting to encroach from the stem connection out along the leaves. I wouldn’t think the store (big-box home repair store) would have sold it if they suspected disease, but one never knows. Could the problem be overwatering (was very wet when I got it)? Why would that affect one stem and not the others? Could it be a fungal infection? What should I do or is the plant doomed? (e-mail reference)

A: Cut out the discolored stem. It appears to be a spreading canker, and removing that stem would solve the problem for the most part. Overwatering is the most common houseplant problem. Water it only when the top inch is dry.


Q: I just bought a very pricey schefflera tree for my office. It was beautiful when I first got it, but it has lost its luster, is turning yellow and losing leaves. I transplanted it into a new pot and added Miracle-Gro potting soil on the bottom and top of the plant. I’ve been misting the leaves because I read somewhere that my problem could be root rot from overwatering. (e-mail reference)

A: Many times houseplants come from very tailored environments, so they don’t do well when they are moved into normal settings. I can’t advise you further, but you are doing everything I would have recommended. There is a good chance the plant will eventually releaf in its present environment.


Q: I had a young lady in with leaves from a schefflera plant. The underside had little bumps that resemble rust spots. Any suggestions? I also had a stop in with pepper plants that have been chewed off at ground level. The culprit did not eat the plants. I thought of rabbits, but they would eat the plants. Could the problem be pocket gophers? (Lisbon, N.D.)

A: The spots could be corky lesions from overwatering. The spots could also be caused by, depending on their size, a scale insect infestation. Scrape a couple with your fingernail and see if they smear off. If they do, then you have a scale infestation. If scraping leaves a small hole and doesn’t smear, then it is an overwatering problem. Pepper plants and other tender vegetables are subject to cutworm activity, which is very likely what happened in this case. It can be controlled via non-chemical means. Wrap aluminum foil around the base of the plant, making sure it goes below the soil line. Plants can also be protected by covering them with milk cartons. There are also plenty of soil applied chemicals that can be used.


Q: My schefflera lost many leaves after we covered our windows with plastic for the winter. The leaves and branches turned yellow and then fell off. I recently got the bright idea of repotting it in a bigger pot because it has been in the same pot for almost two years. I think I made a big mistake. Now all of its leaves and branches are turning yellow. Have I killed my plant? I hope it doesn’t do this every winter when we cover the windows. (E-mail reference)

A: Something in your home environment has changed such as the temperature, humidity, watering cycle, light or a combination of factors. Try to be patient. The plant may be shedding leaves because of low light intensity or overwatering which are the two most common causes of houseplant decline. Do not overwater or fertilize. Moisten the soil and allow it to dry between watering. Get some artificial plant lights and direct them toward the plant. In about six weeks, if the plant is going to make it, new growth should begin emerging. You can then step up the watering a little and begin a dilute fertilization regime on a monthly basis. If there is no sign of life in six weeks, you might as well dump it


Q: I have four large amate schefflera arboricola plants in my house. They are beautiful but are getting very tall. Can I cut the trunk off and put them into the soil again to grow new, single branches? (E-mail reference)

A: You can cut the trunk or main stalk back to about a 4 to 6-inch stub. Then take the trunk and cut it into 4-inch lengths and place them on their side in moist sphagnum peat moss. The peat moss should just cover the pieces. Keep it moist but not soggy and in about 6 to 8 weeks, new growth should develop on top of the trunk and roots at the base. When the roots appear long enough to support the new growth, remove and repot so everything is oriented properly, the top of the plant vertical to the horizontal, etc. Hang a dry cleaner bag over the new plants for a couple of weeks to help them acclimate on their own, then gradually remove completely. The stump you left in the pot should now also be sprouting new growth. Now you will have several plants to give away to your friends!


Q: We have a schefflera tree at my place of employment. It is tall and skinny. Our boss wants us to cut it into three different pieces and replant. Will that work, and if so, does it matter what time of year it should be done? We want it to bush out into a better plant. (E-mail reference)

A: Schefflera can be propagated by taking terminal cuttings and air layering. So what your boss wants should work, if I understand you correctly. It makes little difference as to when this is done. You might want to look into supplemental lighting after the operation is over to keep it from getting leggy. They thrive under high light intensity, excluding direct sunlight.


Q: I have a schefflera, which I have been growing for a couple of years. It is healthy, looks beautiful, and continues to grow at a steady rate. Last spring I decided to prune the plant. I put the branches that I pruned in water so they might sprout roots. Over a year later, the branches have sprouted roots but at a very slow rate. Is there a way I can influence them to grow faster and begin to sprout other branches and leaves? (E-mail reference)

A: Get the rooted cuttings out of the water and into some potting soil! Water alone will not sustain or encourage new growth. Schultz's potting soil would do the trick, as it is rich in organic matter and has a starter nutrient formulation mixed in.


Q: I have a few schefflera plants which are single-stemmed. They are growing indoors and have plenty of water and light. Is there a way to promote more stem growth so each plant will branch out? The plants are now 8 to 24 inches tall. I would love to use some as bonsai projects if I can get them to branch out. (E-mail reference)

A: Go ahead and prune them back or simply pinch out the growing tip and they will branch out.


Q: I have a new schefflera that is very bushy and dense. It is a common variety that was sent as a plant to the funeral of a family member. It seems to be growing very well and there is new growth. However, the leaves are dropping as quickly as they are growing. I have to vacuum them off the floor every other day. It now looks very sparse and no longer bushy. I water once a week and fertilize once a month. How do I keep it from dropping so many leaves? (E-mail reference)

A: The plant is going through a reaction to something in the environment such as a cool, dry or hot draft or too low a light intensity. I suggest moving it somewhere that has strong indirect light. Generally the plants that go through this catharsis do either one of two things: stabilize and produce new leaves that tolerate the new environment or die outright.


Q: I don't have a very green thumb, but I somehow manage not to kill most hardy plants. I've had a large, 4 foot, schefflera for about five months but lately it seems very sick. It originally got a lot of big brown spots, then the leaves started falling off, and now the leaves that are left are quite translucent. It's never been repotted and I don't use fertilizer. I've read that feeding a sick plant can be bad. (E-mail reference)

A: You didn't tell me where in the house you have the plant located. It sounds like it is suffering from too little light combined with some over watering. I would suggest you move it to an area with more light, cut it back and water only when the soil is dry. If it starts responding with new growth, then begin fertilizing every month. If nothing happens after six weeks, then dump it -- the poor thing's over the hill!


Q: I have a healthy schefflera that is getting taller and wider by the week. Although I would eventually like it to be tall, I need to keep it short for now so that if will fit on a stand away from a young child. I would also like to keep it a little narrower than the way it’s growing now. Would you give me some pruning tips. Will this be a constant job or can it be trained? (E-mail reference)

A: Pruning a Schefflera to maintain size is a little tricky, although I am sure there is somebody in the world who will read this and offer a solution! You need to prune back to a joint or go about a quarter inch above where the palmately compound leaves arise from a stem. That will tend to keep the plant to size.


Q: I purchased a schefflera plant a week ago which I haven't watered. It is about 28 inches high. The plant is in a 10-inch pot and has many shoots. The soil feels very dry but I don't want to over-water which is a mistake I made with another plant. Please give me watering instructions. Also, when checking the soil it seemed like there were more roots than soil. It's really beautiful but I'm starting to get some yellow leaves. (E-mail reference)

A: Water enough to completely soak the soil mass then allow the top 2/3's to 3/4's to dry before watering again. When the plant is at rest, it should only get enough water to keep the mixture from completely drying out. If there seems more root mass than soil, I would suggest repotting in the next nominal size pot.


Q: I have acquired a schefflera umbrella tree. It seems to be growing just fine but it often loses its leaves. It grows well at the top but the leaves that are further down the trunk grow to a large size then fall off. Is there a way that I can promote growth down the trunk or is this the way it’s supposed to grow? There is also a lot of growth toward the bottom of the pot. I'm not sure if these are individual plants or it’s supposed to grow that way. Is it possible for me to take anything off the bottom and replant to start a new plant? (E-mail reference)

A: No, that is not the way it is supposed to grow. The leaf loss is probably reflective of insufficient light to maintain the older leaves. The new growth you see coming from the base is a result of the plant attempting to readapt to the low light situation. There are a couple of things you can do; air layer, repot or both. I will forward you my "Home Propagation Techniques," a bulletin which should help you rescue your plant and carry out the air-layering technique.


Q: My schefflera is about 5 years old and has grown to a height of about four feet. The trunk is sturdy and the leaves are beautiful and shiny. Each summer I put it outside (I live in Southern New Jersey), but when I bring it in for the winter it drops the bottom leaflet. There are no leaflets on the bottom three feet. Is there any way I can get a bud to break along the trunk? (E-mail reference)

A: The only way I know is to cut it back, which is usually not a good option. The plant is shedding the oldest leaf in response to lower light intensity when it’s brought inside. Another possibility is to air-layer the top part of the plant to start a new one while it is attached to the mother plant, and once it is removed, the mother plant usually breaks new growth from the base.


Q: I am sending you a leaf from one of my houseplants. It is 3 feet 4 inches tall and has three individual stems. This past winter it has started to get brown spots on the back of some of the leaves. Can you tell me what is causing the spotting? (Pollock, S.D.)

A: Your Schfflerra (Brassaia) is showing symptoms of edema, a corky lesion that often develops from overwatering. I suggest allowing the upper two-thirds of your potting soil to dry before watering again, and make sure the container is free-draining. Also, be sure to dump any excess water that may remain in the saucer 30 minutes after watering.


Q: I just realized that I have a layer of mold (it appears to be mold/fungus) on the soil of my schefflera. How does this happen and what can I do to prevent it from happening again? (E-mail reference)

A: Usually from slow or poor drainage, keeping the soil too wet. You can eliminate by surface cultivation or better yet, repotting with sterilized or pasteurized soil. Nothing to worry about from a plant health standpoint, it is just a saprophyte.


Q: I bought a schefflera and I must have overwatered (my personal bad habit) the plant and now almost all the leaves have fallen off, but the three "trunks" or stems are still very strong, not bent or dying. How do I get new leaves to grow? (E-mail reference)

A: You are in a lot of company when it comes to that bad habit! Try cutting it back to where the lowest leaf was attached and placing it in strong indirect light. Water moderately and give it a shot of fertilizer once a month. If at the end of two to three months nothing has broken bud, forget it and start over.


Q: I have a schefflera that my mother gave me. Now I have a rabbit that loves to eat it, and I want to make sure that it won't hurt it. Also I have birds (parkeets, cockatiels, conyer). Is it harmful to them? (E-mail reference, Kansas)

A: You have nothing to worry about. Schefflera has no poisonous record, so it shouldn't hurt your bunny or birds. That is, of course, assuming that no one has used an insecticide, either surface or systemic, on the plant recently.


Q: I have a small schefflera plant in my office growing entirely under flourescent light. A few months ago someone apparently poured cola on the plant, judging from the smell of the brown water coming from the bottom of the pot. A peace lily and prayer plant were also in the pot, and neither of them survived this bizarre incident, but the schefflera did and is seemingly healthier than ever. However, it is doing something very strange. It is growing leaflets out of the tops of the leaves. It is almost unrecognizable as a schefflera anymore. The leaflets are generally single instead of in that configuration of five that they usually have, but one is tripartate like a clover leaf. Have you heard of this before? Is the plant OK? It seems to be growing vigorously albeit very strangely. (E-mail reference)

A: What was poured on your Schefflera was something more than Coke or Pepsi, or they are putting something in those soft drinks now that I don't want to know about! What you are getting as far as your "new growth" goes sounds very much like a growth regulator reaction. It was potent enough to kill the other plants, but not the schefflera, giving it the anomalous growth characteristics. This is the kind of college lab experiment that is carried on with growth regulators like 2,4-D, that belongs to the family of phenoxy herbicides. They create a hormonal-type of growth in broad-leafed plants in low doses and kills them in slightly higher doses. In the dose that your container received, it was enough to kill the other plants, while it is simply causing strange cell division in the schefflera. The schefflera may survive but look weird. Depending on the kind of folks you have in your office, it could be the subject of some lively conservation based on what people should and shouldn't do with their drinks!


Q: My schefflera trees are about 18 years old. I keep them indoors during the winter and outside during warm months. This winter a "sticky" liquid is dropping from the trees onto the floor. I cannot see scale or other pests. Can you offer suggestions on how to treat the leaves to keep them from dropping the sticky liquid? They get good light, afternoon sun and I do not over water them. One tree is 10 feet tall and the other is 12 feet. I would not like to dispose of them, but if they have an untreatable disease, then I will have get rid of them. (E-mail reference, Augusta, Ga.)

A: I suspect that you may have spider mites doing some feeding on the leaf undersides. They are about the size of the dot at the end of a sentence and blend in quite nicely with the green foliage of the plant. Look for little webbing on the leaf edges. Try taking a damp sponge and wiping the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves off. This will remove any mites present. Do this every two weeks, especially during the winter months when the interior air is so dry. It wouldn't hurt to mist the foliage with distilled water either on a regular basis, like three or four times a week. If this doesn't stop the sticky dripping, then I'd suggest getting rid of it. In the meantime, place a tarp or old tablecloth under the leaves to protect the flooring.


Q: I am looking for information about cutting back a schefflera. I live in Central Florida. About 15 years ago we could not get the plant to grow inside, so we planted it on the south side of our home, where it has been growing quite well until this winter. It is about 20 feet tall, and with all of our freezes this winter, it has lost all of its leaves and I presume is partially dead. Can I cut it back, and how low to the ground should I cut? It has many stalks about 7 inches in diameter. (E-mail reference, Florida)

A: If the plant is alive, it will come back from the root system. You can go ahead and cut it back to within 2 to 4 inches above the ground. When the weather warms, it should send up some sprouts from the base of those stems -- providing it is alive. Generally, when these plants get to be that age in your location, it would take quite an extensive cold period to kill them off completely. There is a lot of energy stored in the roots, which will likely send up some adventitious shoots as the weather continues to warm. As soon as the new growth begins to emerge, you might help it along with a general purpose fertilizer.


Q: I have a question regarding my Schefflera. My plant is healthy but one branch is getting tall (about 5 feet). I would like to prune it back, but want to re-pot the portion I'm cutting off. Is this possible, and if so how do I do it? The plant has three other branches that are lower in height. (E-mail reference)

A: I would suggest air-layering instead. This is a process where roots can be produced on plant stems above the soil and can be removed and potted up as a separate plant. Our "Home Propagation Techniques" bulletin (NCR #274) describes in detail how to air-layer a houseplant.


Q. My schefflera is getting brown spots on the leaves and before long the leaves drop off. The plant is still growing. What can you suggest? (Fargo, N.D.)

A. Your plant is called the Queensland umbrella or Schefflera actinophylla. They can be harmed by overwatering—either too much or too frequently. Overwatering causes root rot followed by premature leaf drop. A leaf spot disease called cercospora may cause pinpoint swellings on the underside of leaves, but was not observed on your sample.

I would suggest repotting the plant and checking the roots for any signs of decay (soft and mushy). You can shake off or rinse away the soil to check. Cut off unhealthy portions and trim away any circling or damaged roots. A clean cut on roots will stimulate new roots to form. Propagation is possible only from seed or plant division. If several stems are evident at the soil surface, gently pull apart plant sections and use a sharp knife to cut apart entangled roots.

Use any good potting compost to replant and make sure there is adequate drainage. Water well initially, but use care thereafter to let soil dry out between waterings. Fertilize from March to September with a liquid type. Also, because of the lowered volume of roots after pruning, it is advisable to prune back or thin excess plant stems.

While moving into warmer weather will be beneficial for the plant this spring, use care next winter not to let temperatures fall below 55 F, which can promote root rot and additional leaf drop.


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