Dragon Tail Plant: What Is It? (Spoiler: NOT a Philodendron)

If like me you bought a Dragon Tail, you might want to know more about the needs of your plant to help it grow.

I bought a juvenile Dragon Tail under the name ‘Philodendron Dragon Tail.’ However, I noticed that it was different from Philodendrons already in my collection. A fatter stem resembling a caterpillar made me wonder. So I googled it and found out that, suspense, it is not a Philodendron! That’s a bummer if you are working to extend your Philodendron collection. πŸ˜…

What makes it worse is that there are two different plants that are commonly marketed as ‘Dragon Tails’ β€” Epipremnum pinnatum and Rhaphidophora decursiva. One site was selling it as ‘Philodendron Epipremnum pinnatum Dragon Tail’. However, Epipremnum is not a Philodendron; these are two different genera, like apples and oranges (or more appropriately, lemons and oranges, as they are both Aroids). Rhaphidophora is yet another separate genus of plants, which is not a Philodendron neither.

Even botanists struggle to distinguish between Epipremnum pinnatum and Rhaphidophora decursiva, and it seems that nurseries label them based on whichever genus sells better. The nursery where I bought my Dragon Tail sells a lot of Philodendrons (which are usually legitimate Philodendron species), but the much smaller Epipremnum family is not represented, at least on the labels. Therefore, this species would presumably look more out of place labeled as a lonely Epipremnum than as a much more familiar Philodendron.

Anyways, this multiple naming got me curious to find out what my plant really is and what care does it need accordingly. What do we know about my two candidates β€” Epipremnum pinnatum and Rhaphidophora decursiva?

Candidate #1 : Epipremnum Pinnatum

Epipremnums are not as numerous as Philodendrons with about 15 known species, which is 30 times less than the number of recognised Philodendron species (or 100 less that their overall estimated number). Epipremnum Pinnatum is the most widespread and best known member of the family. However, its story resembles to that of the Ugly Duckling: different authors at different times included this species in different families β€” Pothos, Scindapsus, Rhadiophora, Monstera, and Philodendron β€” till it finally settled among Epipremnum. Nowadays, this plant is accepted under the name Epipremnum pinnatum. 

What causes this problem of identification is that Epipremnum Pinnatum can look very different as a young plant versus an adult plant, and it can vary a lot even within its own species.

The second cause is that Epipremnum pinnatum is not rare, it is very widespread occurring throughout tropical Asia from the Andaman Islands to western Oceania. Thus many researchers would stumble upon it and be tempted to classify it.

In some areas, the plant has become naturalized, which means that it has established self-sustaining populations in the wild. This may be due to its ability to adapt to a broad range of environments and its popularity as a houseplant.

Epipremnum pinnatum is found in various habitats β€” from dense to open, from lowland to upper hill rain and monsoonal forest, where it thrives in the humid conditions. It can also invade rubber plantations as an unwelcome weed. Sometimes, it can grow lithophytically on exposed rocks and and in coastal forest, on a variety of substrates including granite, andesite and limestone.

In the wild, Epipremnum pinnatum is a massive liane with a stem up to 15 m (50 ft) long and 4 cm (1.5 inch) thick. It is a root-climber, which means that it grows roots all along the stem and uses them to attach to suitable surfaces.

The leaves of Epipremnum Pinnatum are alternately arranged on the stem. When the plant is young, its leaves are simple and upright, while the leaves of adult plants are hanging and beautifully dissected.

In the wild, mature leaves of Epipremnum pinnatum can grow to an impressive size of up to 90 cm long and 60 cm wide (about 3 ft by 2 ft). The leaves have an oval shape with a slightly rounder base and a more acute tip. As the plant ages, the leaves become larger and more dissected. Cuts can go all the way to the midrib, but more often they are a little shorter. Sometimes, translucent dots appear near the midrib and can develop into perforations that extend almost to the edge of the leaf, similar to Monstera.

Candidate#2: Phaphidophora Decursiva

The Rhaphidophora family is larger with about 100 species covering a wide geography β€” from wet tropical Africa, throughout tropical south and South East Asia, subtropical and tropical Australia, and into western Oceania with extensions into the subtropical Himalaya, southern China, and the southernmost islands of Japan.

Like Epipremnum pinnatum, Rhaphidophora decursiva appears to adapt well to a wide range of growth environments, from well-drained subtropical areas to ever-wet broadleaf forests, and from lowlands to upper hill and lower montane forests. It can be observed creeping on the ground, over rocks, or climbing against trees.

These lianas are even more robust than Epipremnum pinnatum with stems growing to 20 m (65 ft) or more in length and to 5 cm (almost 2 inch) in diameter.

The leaves of Rhaphidophora decursiva are scattered along the stem, with each leaf separated from the next by several (up to 7) nodes, giving the plant a rather sparse appearance. Juvenile plants have smaller, rounder leaves without cuts. The leaves of adult plants can grow to be huge β€” up to 100 by 50 cm (over 3 by 1.5 ft) β€” and are irregularly and asymmetrically cut, with the incisions reaching the midrib and individual sections separated by a portion of naked midrib.

How to Tell Epipremnum Pinnatum from Rhaphidophora Decursiva?

With all that has been said above, it’s no wonder that these two plants can get mislabeled. They have a very similar geographic distribution and growth habits, and their leaves are about the same size and shape. Botanists are well aware of the possibility of confusion between the Epipremnum and Rhaphidophora families. So, how do they suggest distinguishing the two?


If fruits are mature, seed characters separate Epipremnum and Rhaphidophora. Epipremnum has fruits with few large, strongly curved, seeds with a bony, smooth to ornamented testa. The fruits of Rhaphidophora each contain many small ellipsoid seeds with a brittle, smooth testa. Alternatively, immature fruits can be dissected and the number of ovules counted (few in Epipremnum, almost always many in Rhaphidophora).

Mansor, M., Boyce, P.C., Othman, A.S. & Sulaiman, B. (2012). The Araceae of peninsular Malaysia: 1-146.

So, one way to tell an Epipremnum from a Rhaphidophora is by looking at their fruit and either comparing the shape and texture of the seeds in a mature fruit or counting the number of ovules in a dissected immature fruit. Great! But that’s not helpful when you’re looking at a juvenile plant that you would first need to keep alive until maturity.

In the absence of fruit, what else can we use to distinguish between the two plants?


By chance, there are some other differences that can help. For example, in the stems. A mature Rhaphidophora will lack the prominent, irregular whitish ridges along the stems that are typical of Epipremnum pinnatum. So, if your plant is mature and you still have doubts, look at the stem. My Dragon Tail is still a juvenile plant, and its stem resembles a fat green caterpillar. I’ve seen in forums that the fat stem of a juvenile plant can make people believe that it’s a Rhaphidophora. I have a juvenile R. tetrasperma, and it’s true that it has a fat stem too. So, I’d say it’s one doubtful point for Rhaphidophora in my case.


There is also a difference in leaf arrangement along the stem: Rhaphidophora decursiva has her leaves scattered along the stem with several (up to 7) nodes with dry skins (cataphylls) separating each leaf from the next. In Epipremnum pinnatum leaves are more organised, often clustered at the end of the stem and then evenly distributed and alternately arranged throughout its length. I see three nodes between the last two leaves of my young Dragon Tail, so I give another highly doubtful point to Rhaphidophora.

Now, let’s look at those leaves. The way they are cut could be helpful in a mature plant. My scientific sources say that in Epipremnum pinnatum, leaf shapes are variable, and the incisions can go more or less close to the midrib, and translucent dots (eventually developing into perforations) are not uncommon. Once again, Rhaphidophora seems to be more carefree with its leaves, which are cut irregularly and asymmetrically, with the incisions usually going all the way to the midrib and with portions of naked midrib between leaf sections (pinnae), which gives the leaves (at least in the wild) a kind of nonchalant look.

While young, both species have entire leaves without incisions. However, many sources say that in juvenile Rhaphidophora decursiva, the leaves are rounder in shape. Hmm. It seems that this point will go to Epipremnum pinnatum. Even though the very first leaves of my Rhaphidophora tetrasperma are also longer than the first leaves with incisions, which are slightly rounder.

Last, but not least, let’s look at leaf venation. The big difference is in primary lateral veins, that are more developed in Rhaphidophora. Every leaf section (pinna) of those species, even the narrowest one, has more than one primary lateral vein, while Epipremnum pinnatum has a much more modest venation with only one primary lateral vein per pinna. My juvenile Dragon Tail does not have split leaves yet, but the primary lateral veins are clearly present and developed. Another point for Rhaphidophora decursiva.

And the winner is….

Based on all the subtle differentiation criteria freely applied to my baby Dragon Tail, I come to a somewhat hesitant conclusion or rather a hypothesis that my plant is a Rhaphidophora decursiva.

On the other hand, what does it change, as long as the plant is happy and grows beautiful leaves that it is supposed to?

What Does That Mean Care-Wise?

If scientists have a hard time telling one from the other and must meticulously compare the two based on very subtle characteristics, it’s because these two plants strongly resemble each other in every other aspect. They have similar and wide geographic distributions, with the exception that Epipremnum pinnatum extends as far south as Australia, while Rhaphidophora decursiva does not (though it has cousins there).

Both plants have similar growth habits: they like climbing and attach to the host tree or rock with adventitious roots. Their juveniles grow in soil in the forest floor till they find the right support.

They both live in humid forests and don’t seem very picky in terms of lighting. They can grow in shade (while climbing towards the sun) or in more open sites, where there is no need to climb up, so they creep on the rocks.

These plants are not fussy in terms of substrate neither. All they need is a surface to attach to and some moisture from the environment. Well, they live in rainforests, and as their name suggests they provide plenty of humidity for these plants to stay well hydrated.

Key Takeaways

Taking into account all of their preferences in the wild, we can make the following notes on the optimal care for Dragon Tail plants (regardless of whether it is a Rhaphidophora or Epipremnum):

  1. In general, Dragon Tails are not difficult to care for. They can thrive in various lighting conditions, but they will even prefer filtered light or semi-shade.
  2. They don’t really care about the substrate either, but a well-draining substrate is a better choice, as these plants are not observed in swampy areas and don’t like to be waterlogged.
  3. Dragon Tail plants will enjoy a surface for climbing or crawling, such as a moss pole, a wooden plank, or a rock, something to cling with their roots.
  4. They love ambient humidity, so a humidifier might help if the air is dry.
  5. All in all, Dragon Tail plants look like good candidates for semi-hydro. That way, they can get some humidity from LECA and have enough drainage.


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