Pothos Aerial Roots: Why They Grow + What You Can Do

Pothos or Devil’s Ivy (Epipremnum aureum) is an easy-care, handsome plant that you love to grow, but you notice brown roots that are growing out of the stems. They’re not very attractive – are they normal?

What are Pothos aerial roots, and what is their purpose? Should I leave them or cut them off?

There is no cause for alarm. They’re called aerial roots or air roots, and they’re perfectly normal. They grow on many plants such as Philodendrons, Monsteras, Orchids, Fiddle Leaf Figs, Rubber Plants, and Lacy Tree Philodendrons (Thaumatophyllum bipinnatifidum, and yes, Pothos.

What Are Pothos Aerial Roots & What Are Their Functions?

pothos plant climbing a moss pole

There are different kinds of aerial roots for various purposes. Some are mainly for support, such as for the Banyan Fig that grows massive roots down to the ground. 

Some are to absorb oxygen, like on Mangrove trees that live in marshes and swamps. And epiphytic plants that grow on other plants use them as anchors and absorb water and nutrients.

In its native rainforest habitat of French Polynesia, Pothos is an epiphytic vine¹, meaning that it climbs up and lives on trees, growing toward the dappled light and rainwater that filters through the thick canopy of leaves overhead.

It grows strong aerial roots that grab onto the bark and support its stems and foliage as it climbs. And even though Pothos plants absorb water and nutrients from their soil roots in the ground, they grow so high that they need to supplement the water and nutrients by absorbing rainwater and humidity through their aerial roots.

These roots start as green nubbins at the nodes where the leaves meet the stem and turn brown as they develop a tough outer layer. They can grow quite long when they are alive, but aerial roots that are hollow and brittle have died and can no longer function.

Are Aerial Roots Necessary for Houseplants?

pothos climbing a coconut coir pole

As houseplants, Pothos’ aerial roots are less necessary to the plants’ survival than in the wild. Although they will absorb humidity and oxygen from the air and can aid in propagation, their primary purpose indoors is for climbing.

Support

If you have your Pothos in a standing pot and give it a moss pole or trellis, it will grow aerial roots supporting it as it climbs. Pothos in hanging baskets may or may not grow aerial roots because they do not need to climb.

Water & Nutrients

Just like in the wild, your Pothos will absorb water and nutrients through its aerial roots. But it’s less necessary than a houseplant since you will regularly give it water and fertilizer.

However, when the heat is on in the winter, its aerial roots will help it stay healthy by absorbing any supplemental humidity you provide, such as with a humidifier or a pebble tray with water.

Propagation

Aerial roots won’t grow new plants by themselves, but they will aid in propagation by growing soil roots if they are attached to a stem with a node in water or soil propagation.

 Water Propagation

To propagate in water, cut a section of stem with at least one node with an aerial root and a couple of leaves with clean shears, scissors, or a sharp knife. Then, put it in a clean jar of water and remove any leaves below the water line.

Change the water every four or five days to keep bacteria and algae from growing, and new roots should begin to grow in two to three weeks.

 Soil propagation

To propagate in soil, put the Pothos cuttings with nodes and aerial roots into the potting soil and water them thoroughly. If there are additional air roots above on the lengths of stem cuttings, you can bury their tips in the soil as well.

The cuttings will still grow roots if you remove the aerial roots from the stems that you’re propagating. But if you leave them on, they will aid in propagation by growing their own roots.

What Makes Aerial Roots on Pothos Grow?

pothos in jungle

Several conditions will cause them to grow, including the need to climb. Low light, high or low temperatures, high humidity, nutrient deficiencies, and overwatering or underwatering will all encourage Pothos to grow aerial roots.

Low light

The best light for a Pothos is bright indirect light that mimics its native conditions. Pothos rarely, if ever, experiences direct sunlight that will burn its leaves.

It can adapt to medium or low light, but its growth will slow down, its leaves may begin to turn yellow, and aerial roots may start to grow in an attempt to help it climb to reach enough light.

High or Low Temperatures

Pothos plants do best in temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees F. They can handle temperatures up to 90 degrees, but above that, they will wilt and become stunted.

Temperatures below 50-55 degrees F will have a similar effect. Cold temperatures will cause Pothos to wilt and drop its leaves.

Both extremes in temperatures can promote aerial, and soil root growth as the plant attempts to adapt to less-than-optimal conditions.

High Humidity

Pothos has evolved to absorb as much humidity as possible in its native environment through its aerial roots. Therefore, when you supply your plant with high humidity, such as with a humidifier, or if you locate it in a high-humidity area of the house, like in the bathroom or kitchen, it will likely develop aerial roots in response to the higher amount of moisture.

Nutrient Deficiencies

In its native habitat, Pothos absorbs supplemental amounts of nutrients through its aerial roots. Even as a houseplant, if its soil has become depleted, Pothos will try to take in more nutrients by growing aerial roots.

Overwatering & Underwatering

When a plant is overwatered, the air spaces in the soil are filled with water, and the plant can suffocate and develop root rot. In addition to their other advantages, aerial roots can absorb oxygen from the air and often grow to supply oxygen to a suffocating plant.

An underwatered plant will cause aerial roots to grow, too, so that they can absorb moisture from the air for a plant that needs more water in its tissues.

Keep your Pothos healthy using a pot with drainage holes, and water it thoroughly when the soil is dry 2″ to 3″ down from the top. If you need help determining how often to water your plant, a moisture meter will help you determine the timing.

What to do With Aerial Roots on Pothos Plants: Should You Cut Them Off or Leave Them?

Aerial roots play an essential role in the health and survival of Pothos plants in their rainforest habitat. But as houseplants, they’re not as necessary.

They are helpful for the pothos plant to climb up a moss pole and can aid in propagation, but if you find them unattractive or too long, you can trim them or completely cut them off.

Cut them close to the stem to remove them, or prune them to a good length with clean scissors or shears.

Pothos aerial roots are there for a reason, but whether you leave or cut them off, you won’t damage the plant.

References

1: Pothos vietnamensis sp. nov. (Araceae–Pothoideae–Potheae) from Vietnam. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2023, from https://www.aroid.org/gallery/boyce/Pothos%20vietnamensis%20-%20%5BNordic%20Journal%20of%20Botany%20000%20001–005%5D%20-%20Nguyen%2C%20Nguyen%20%26%20Boyce.pdf

Author & Editor | + posts

Nancy has been a plant person from an early age. That interest blossomed into a bachelor’s in biology from Elmira College and a master’s degree in horticulture and communications from the University of Kentucky. Nancy worked in plant taxonomy at the University of Florida and the L. H. Bailey Hortorium at Cornell University, and wrote and edited gardening books at Rodale Press in Emmaus, PA. Her interests are plant identification, gardening, hiking, and reading.