The umbrella plant may be seen as octopus tree—both names from the spreading leaves with large leaflets in an umbrella spoke pattern. It often goes just by the genus name of Schefflera (said as scheff-Lair-ah), named after the nineteenth-century German botanist J.C. Scheffler. Don’t confuse it with the grass-like umbrella sedge, a water plant. Schefflera is not too fussy about culture—just give it bright light, don’t overwater, and watch for certain pests.
While this tropical plant can get quite large outdoors in climates such as south Florida, it can be grown indoors in much less space and is commonly found in greenhouses, homes, and public spaces. The main species (Schefflera actinophylla) can get to 40 feet high outdoors in the tropics, yet only gets 8 to 10 feet usually indoors and half as wide. A shorter species, the dwarf schefflera (Schefflera arboricola) may be found under another previous genus (Heptapleurum). This one only gets 4 to 6 feet high and wide indoors.
Leaves on both have distinct leaflets—up to 7 usually on the main species and 7 to 11 on the dwarf one. There may be more on plants outdoors in the tropics. Leaflets are up to a foot long on the main species, and only 4 inches or so long on the dwarf one, and thicker. There is a commonly seen form of the dwarf schefflera with yellow variegated leaves.
Schefflera contains calcium oxalate crystals. These make this plant harmful to cats and dogs if leaves are chewed, resulting in intense mouth and throat discomfort and related issues.
Plants like bright light but not direct sun, which can cause leaf burn. At least 3 to 4 hours a day of sun filtered through a thin sheer curtain would be ideal. Being tropical, they like warmth. Use a houseplant fertilizer of your choice, according to label directions, if plants are actively growing. Temperatures shouldn’t drop much below 60 degrees (F) or for long in winter. Below 50 degrees and leaves may turn black and drop off.
While schefflera doesn’t get any serious pests or diseases, watch for white mealybugs. These can be dabbed off with cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol. Also watch for small brown scale insects, and their sticky residue, and wipe these off similarly. Once established, the latter are harder to get rid of. If you see webbing on leaves, particular undersides, and leaves with a mottled yellowing, look closely for minute spider mites. Insecticidal soaps can be used on these, as well as other sprays labeled for this pest. Keeping leaves wiped every month or so with a damp cloth will help get rid of any insects, and will keep dust off the wide leaflets.
Lower leaves may drop off with older plants, or from sudden extremes in temperature, too little light, or staying too wet or drying out. Schefflera is much more forgiving of too little water, than too much. Drafts such as near doors and heating vents in winter, or air conditioners in summer, also can cause leaves to drop.
If a plant loses lots of, or most, leaves, it still may survive. Cut if back if leggy, and give better care. If summer, you can place plants outdoors and they may leaf out. You also can put healthy plants with leaves out for the summer. Just make sure to bring in on cool nights, and don’t put plants out into direct sun.
If plants start having leggy growth or are getting too tall, they can be pruned back to just above a leaf to keep then shorter and to encourage branching. Plants seldom flower indoors, but outdoors in the tropics they may produce panicles of tiny red flowers in summer, followed by small orange fruit.
Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont