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Plant Profiles

The Best Season Ever: Philodendron 'Black Cardinal'




Philodendrons can be one-note johnnies, where the only change season to season is in volume, I mean size.  'Black Cardinal' is no different, but what a note it sings!  Leaves emerge wine-red and mature to burgundy.  And how about those ebony stems?


'Black Cardinal' is one cultivar even philodendronophobes might approve of, especially given this plant's potential for combining with an unusually wide range of contrasting partners.  I'll never have a swiss-cheese philodendron climbing up a hunk of bark; even fifty years ago it was already so overused it had become available in plastic, and so could be a prop on "The Dick Van Dyke" show.  'Black Cardinal' is the same vintage, but has the potential to become a classic instead of a cliché.  


Here's how to grow this unique philodendron:

Latin name

Philodendron 'Black Cardinal'

Common name

Black Cardinal philodendron


Araceae, the Arum family.

What kind of plant is it

Evergreen perennial.


Zones 10 - 12.


Broad wavy leaves about ten inches long, on petioles of similar length, borne by a plant that is clumping, not vining.  "Self-heading" is the industry term.  

Rate of growth


Size in ten years

A clump two to four feet across and two to three feet high.


Dense and, unless partnered with plants whose foliage is smaller or grassier or more feathery, or whose habit is contrastingly tall and stemmy, too heavy by half.  See "Partner plants" for some options.

Grown for

its coloring: There are innumerable forms of Philodendron with variegated leaves as well as leaves whose color is solidly brighter-than-average.  Purple-leaved forms are far fewer.  The dark leaves of 'Black Cardinal' emerge a bright pinkish-red but soon darken to burgundy.  The petioles are ebony.  Older foliage can reveal more green; coloring can be affected by the amount of light.  See 'Culture,' below. 


its habit: Philodendrons are typically vines or non-vining forms, such as P. bipinnatifidum, that develop thick stems that can be almost vining or trunk-like.  'Black Cardinal' neither vines nor stems, and remains "self-heading," meaning mounding and basal.

Flowering season

'Black Cardinal' rarely flowers.

Color combinations

The burgundy leaves, ebony petioles, and wine-colored new foliage of 'Black Cardinal' can mingle with anything from pink to blue to yellow to red to white.  Lighter colors enhance the plants dark-hued display, especially when a feature of plants so low that they can intervene between 'Black Cardinal' and the ground that is always fairly close below it.  See 'Partner plants,' below.

Partner plants

The broad simple leaves, solidly dark foliage and, on more mature specimens than the one above, dense habit, can make 'Black Cardinal' too squat and bulky to use alone.  But the unmitigated intensity of these same qualities make it an easy star when used amid contrasting partners.  Possibilities abound that emphasize differences in habit, texture, leaf size and shape, and coloring.  


Tree ferns are a "two-fer," bringing stark contrast in form as well as leaf size and texture.  Someday, I hope to see a courtyard of a tropical townhouse or resort or corporate building whose focal planting is a grove of tree ferns underplanted with 'Black Cardinal'.  Setting even a single potted 'Black Cardinal' near or amid a few potted ferns is the way to achieve the same stunning effect on a smaller scale.  Nephrolepis exaltata 'Rita's Gold' enjoys the same dappled shade, has bright chartreuse fronds, and is widely available. 


What about setting a pot of 'Black Cardinal' on a short plinth surrounded by Hakonechloa aureola 'All Gold'?  This hardy grass's shimmering bright foliage, preference for dappled shade, and distinctive "just-combed" mounding habit couldn't be more a more joyful backdrop. 


In the reverse, grow 'Black Cardinal' at the base of Hedychium 'Vanilla Ice'.  This tropical ginger has the cane-like growth typical of its genus, and its leaves are strongly streaked with cream.  Its late-season heads of apricot flowers, fragrant and exciting as they are, are just an afterthought given the powerful interaction of these two plants' foliage.


I hope to do this duo one better by adding the uniquely shade-loving and huge-flowered Andean sage, Salvia dombeyi.  Its pendulous flowers' eggplant calyces and smoldering orange flowers would call out to the 'Black Cardinal' below, and its scandent stems would enjoy slaloming up through the 'Vanilla Ice' canes.  The energetic coloring of the ginger and philodendron foliage would also lift the curse of the salvia's bland green leaves.

Where to use it in your garden

The plant combines burgundy foliage with hosta-like size and shade-preference, which is handy in itself, given that there are, as yet, no burgundy-leaved hostas.  'Black Cardinal' is not fast-growing or inexpensive enough to use as an annual; keep it in a pot so you can bring it into shelter before light frost is even an idea, let alone a reality.  Although 'Black Cardinal' would scorch in an hour if set on a hot sunny terrace, its dark and spreading foliage could be set off beautifully by setting a pot of it on a shady terrace of a lighter-colored stone such as bluestone, granite, or terrazzo. 


Good soil and dappled shade or bright indirect light in a frost-free climate.  Happy with high heat and humidity, but tolerant of the relative coolness and low humidity favored for indoor environments.  If light is insufficient, green can suffuse the coloring, and the plant growth can become scandent as the plant searches for more light.  If the light is too strong, the foliage can scorch.  

How to handle it: The Basics

Colder than Zone 10, 'Black Cardinal' is a container plant, and can be summered outdoors only after the weather has reliably warmed.  Otherwise, philodendrons are nothing if not tolerant, but fuller and quicker growth results from potting in rich soil.  Although full or mid-day sun is likely to fry the foliage, dappled sun or full morning or late-day sun will help the plant maintain maximal coloring.  


Philodendron appreciates regular watering and fertilizing when in active growth during the warm seasons.  When brought into shelter before frost, the comparatively low light and cooler temperatures can shift them into substantial dormancy; water only when the soil feels dry, or when the leaves show signs of wilting.  Plants can survive a long time in a given size of pot, and accommodate to their restricted circumstances by shedding an old leaf for every new one.  It's a fuller look to repot in Spring, but even when growing at full force, 'Black Cardinal' isn't likely to need larger than a five-gallon pot.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

'Black Cardinal' is somewhat of a rarity in my collection:  It wants nothing but to grow on its own.  The plant doesn't lend itself to pinching or to creative pruning and the espaliers, topiary, and hedges that are the result of it.

Any (other) quirks or special cases?





There are hundreds of species of Philodendron, from demure house-plant trailers to massive clumpers that are an iconic flora of the tropics, to immense muscular vines that climb tall trees.  Their leaves can be smooth-edged, pierced by holes, or divided, and range in size from several inches to several feet.  Variegated forms are prevalent, whereas dark-leaved forms, such as 'Black Cardinal', are rare.  The leaves of dark-foliaged forms are typically smooth and unlobed; 'Red Empress' is unique in having lobes as well as a burgundy hue, but the quality of the color isn't exceptional enough to make the plant appealing to more than specialists. 


Philodendrons hybridize well; spontaneous variants are common, too.  With so many species to begin with, there will never not be new forms to try.  


Plants are typically so tolerant of low light and indifferent care that they have long been the archetypal houseplant to give to recipients with a long track record of having a "black thumb."  Their ease of propagation combines with their tolerant disposition to ensure that many forms are overused.  No resort or condo from mid-Florida south is without its clumps of the admittedly fabulous cut-leaf species, Philodendron bipinnatifidum.  For a couple of decades, no atrium hotel lacked planters of the trailing species, Philodendron scandens.  A struggling plant of swiss-cheese vine, Philodendron monstera, is a hallmark of modern as well as suburban decor; a plastic version of the plant was a faithful corner dweller of the living room of "The Dick Van Dyke Show."


Despite these forms' curse of universal popularity, unusual forms of Philodendron can complement even the snobbiest garden and most sophisticated interior decor.  Not least, their very adaptability and durability makes them an easy partner to plants whose trickier demands may take up too much time already.  Aside from Clivia, Spathiphyllum, and Sansevieria, few plants besides Philodendron have the size, style, and endurance year after year to cost-effectively hold their own in interior plantscaping 


To dive into the length and breadth of this genus, browse the collection of Glasshouse Works.


The gigantic variegated "philodendron" that is so dramatic when climbing up the trunks of tall tropical palms (and so contrastingly small and demure when cascading out of millions of pots in indoor displays world-wide) is a philodendron relative, Epipremnum aureum, which is native from Australia to India.  It can become invasive in warm and frost-free climates, so needs careful siting.




By division, by rooting sections of the stem, and by tissue culture.  'Black Cardinal' isn't known to flower, and even if it did, the plant is such a complex hybrid that the seeds wouldn't come true, or even close.

Native habitat

Philodendron species are all native to the tropical Americas and the Caribbean.  They have naturalized worldwide in the moist tropical environments they prefer.  The parentage of 'Black Cardinal' includes about six Philodendron species; the cultivar was developed in Florida. 

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