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Philodendron spiritus-sancti G.S. Bunting

Philodendron spiritus-sancti Photo courtesy the International Aroid Society

Philodendron spiritus-sancti G.S. Bunting
Known by some as "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina"

The curse of a common name.  Should more than one plant share the same name?


Published to science i 1987 by George Bunting in Phytologia 61(7), Philodendron spiritus-sancti is found only in Brazil in the state of Espirito Santo near the town of Domingos Martins. The species is found at an elevation of approximately Philodendron spiritus-sancti, Photo copyright 2007, Steve Lucas, www.ExoticRainforesst.com800 meters above sea level.  Domingos Martins is near the Atlantic coast northeast of Rio de Janeiro.   Almost all serious aroid collectors know of an extremely rare Philodendron found only in southeastern Brazil.  Dr. Eduardo Gonçalves and Emerson Salviani published an article in the 2001 edition of Aroideana, volume 24 regarding the species.  Aroideana is the journal of the International Aroid Society.  If you are not an IAS member you can find a link to join here:
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Philodendron spiritus-sancti is a hemiepiphytic vine.  Hemiepiphytes are species that may either begin life as a seed which has fallen to the ground which proceeds to climb a tree or a species that begins life as an epiphyte and then climbs downward to set root in the soil.  The leaf blades of  P. spiritus-sancti are supported on petioles ranging in length from 35 to 60 cm (12.75 to 23.6 inches).  The blades are dark dull green and typically measure 57 to 63 cm (22.5 to 28.75 inches) long by 11 to 12.5 cm (4.5 to 4.9 inches wide.  Cultivated specimens are often shorter as well as broader in size.   The blades are roughly an elongated triangle (cordate-sagittate) with an acute apex.  The abaxial surface (underside) is markedly paler in color while the leaf margins (edges) are known scientifically as being vinaceous which indicates the purple coloration of a grape.  The blades are somewhat thin (chartaceous to subcoriaceous) with four primary lateral veins per side along with one to four basal veins in the upper lobes (see scientific drawing below). 

Specimens grow best as epiphytes but can be grown in extremely porous soil that drains very quickly.  Growers in Brazil recommend the use of primarily dried leaves, shredded mosses (such as sphagnum) combined with minimal soil, bark and other amendments such as orchid bark and charcoal that will hold moisture but not remain soggy.

According to Dr. Gonçalves and Emerson Salviani there are now only six known specimens of the very rare and endangered species left wild (see photo right and below).  According to  personal communication with  Dr.  Gonçalves Philodendron spiritus-sancti is endangered and near extinction due to the excessive clearing of habitat.  The remaining six specimens in Brazil is a private farm that is closely guarded.   There are now more plants (still very few) in the hands of private collectors than in the wild.  The Kautsky family owns the farm where all the remaining specimens of Philodendron spiritus-sancti remain in the wild. 

In Brazil, Philodendron spiritus-sancti is known by some as "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina".  In the opening of the article described above Dr. Gonçalves writes, "One of the most aesthetically desirable species in the genus Philodendron (P. spiritus-sancti G.S. Bunting), commonly known as Philodendron Santa Leopoldina has been rediscovered in the wild in the forests of southeastern Espirito Santo State, close to the town of Domingo Martins."

The name Santa Leopoldina is associated by Brazilians with the town and region where Philodendron spiritus-sancti  was first located.  The name "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" was first introduced to the majority of plant enthusiasts in a 1983 International Aroid Society article (Aroideana, volume 6) by Bette Waterbury who was one of the founders of the International Aroid Society (IAS) regarding her search for the species Philodendron spiritus-sancti along with a few other similar plants.  The name Philodendron Santa Leopoldina is a common name also used by sellers for many plants other than P. spiritus-sancti and is not scientific. 

Bette pointed out there were several plants known as Santa Leopoldina in the wild but none of these are the same species as the true Philodendron spiritus-sancti and many are simply juvenile forms of known Philodendron species.  The debate over which plant should or should not be truly known by the common name Philodendron Santa Leopoldina was apparently begun by Better herself when she wrote, "
Luis and Roberto Kautsky are of the opinion that there are four distinct variations of P. "Santa Leopoldina": Two forms have the very long sagittate leaf — the first type is deep red on the underside, and the second type is completely green. The third type is more hastate and almost entirely silvery green. The fourth type is also hastate but is reddish on the underside. Apparently P. "Santa Leopoldina" is not proliferous in any form or found in any quantity in the wild, as wherever we went, we would see one or two at the most in any private collection or nursery. Even Roberto Burle-Marx had only two of type one, though he had several of type three, it appears to be a treasure even down there."   The term sagittate in botany indicates a leaf that is arrow shaped.  Hastate means to have the shape of an arrowhead but with the basal lobes pointing outward at right angles.

Bette was unable to collect "type 4" as she referred to it and it is unclear which plant that may have been.  Since her original publication there have been various plants sharing the single common name "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" which has caused a great deal of confusion among plant collectors.  All too often any plant that has an elongated leaf blade that is unknown to the seller ends up being sold as a "form" of "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" and plants originally collected a thousand or more miles away from the region of Brazil where Philodendron spiritus-sancti was originally found are often given the same common name.

Her observation appears to have been taken to excess by many anxious to sell plants that are far less rare as a "type" of Philodendron spiritus-sancti when in fact none have any direct relationship.  Members of the International Aroid Society have clearly identified two of Bette's "variations" and one is not clearly understood and it is debated if the plant even exists.  IAS member  Don Bittel pointed out in an email to the entire Aroid l discussion group the following, "The second major confusion about Santa Leopoldina came from Bette Waterbury's article. The picture on page 8 shows a long leafed form, and the caption says that this is type 3, which is more hastate and silvery green.  THIS IS A TYPO. It was never corrected in a future Aroideana. In Bette's letters, she makes note of the typo, but does not say what the correct type is. It is clearly type 1 or type 2, which are spiritus-sancti. If the photo was in color we could tell if it was the red form or the green form. We may never know since the original photos are lost." 

Bette's article appears to imply the primary difference is only the color on the reverse of the leaf, red or green.  IAS members have both seen and verified these color variations and as can be seen in Leland Miyano's photo.  The photo (right) shows the reverse of the leaf having a matte green abaxial surface (underside) with a reddish midrib, portions of the petiole and some of the venation while the photo below (left) shows the reddish abaxial (underside) surface.

The name "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" is not a registered cultivar and as a result the name cannot be used with single quotes (Philodendron 'Santa Leopoldina') as it sometimes is used.  Registered cultivars of aroid species require registration with the International Aroid Society and no such registration has been made.  It is also improper to publish the name "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" in italics since it has never been published as a scientific name. 

Due to the use of the name "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" in relation to the very rare species Philodendron spiritus-sancti there has arisen a minor controversy over the use of the common name for many far less rare species.  Specimens of Philodendron spiritus-sancti have frequently sold for amounts in the thousands of dollars.

Common names are simply "made-up" and cannot be claimed by any single plant and have no scientific significance.  Anyone can use any name they choose for any plant  unless that name is registered.  At the same time scientific names cannot be registered for private use.  Since the term "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" is not a scientific name anyone can use the name for any plant!  But the question has arisen, should plant sellers use the common name of an extremely rare plant to sell apparently common plants in a way that may lead an unwary buyer to believe they are buying something truly rare?  In that case, "buyer-beware" is certainly worth considering!

For some time plant sellers have been selling a fair number of vaguely similar species and hybrids using Philodendron spiritus-sancti's Brazilian common name,  "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina".  Some similar long blade species do originate from the same area but they not the same species.  Some have elected to use the terms "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina II", or "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina III" apparently attempting to capitalize on Bette Waterbury's article.  

If you possess a specimen acquired with the common name "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina and it does not look like the photos of Philodendron spiritus-sancti on this page  it isn't Philodendron spiritus-sancti and may not have even originated in Brazil.

One of the species sometimes sold with the name "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" is currently being studied for for scientific publication.  Work on the plant is being completed by Dr. Gonçalves in Brazil and is now being called Philodendron superbum.  The species has not been scientifically published.    In an email Australian collector Michael Pascal made these comments,  "Eduardo ID’d this for me , it came into Australia many years ago as a Santa Leopoldina.  It has flowered a few times and has been spread around Queensland a fair bit, it grows very well in sub-tropics.  Easily spotted with the d shaped very flat topped petiole with fine grooves and its tiny internodes."  Michael elected to call  the plant pseudo-Santa Leopoldina.  In the photos below, this plant along with the spathe is noted as specimen number 2.  

Please note:  Even though the plant originates in the same area as Philodendron spiritus-sancti and is sometimes call "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" it is not a form of P. spiritus-sancti  and is an entirely different species.

John Criswick from the island of Grenada provided photos of a plant he too has known as "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina".  That specimen has distinctly burgundy undersides but does not have the sharply pointed upper lobes of Philodendron spiritus-sancti.   Some growers know this and one other plant as Philodendron 'Roberto' but no such registration can be found.  Those plants are seen on the illustration below as numbers 4 and 6.  One is the juvenile form of Philodendron atabapoense but neither are forms of Philodendron spiritus-sancti.

Philodendron atabapoense juvenile, Photo Copyright 2002, Steve Lucas, www.ExoticRainforest.comAnother form as "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" was identified by Dr. Tom Croat of the Missouri Botanical Garden as either  Philodendron angustilobum or Philodendron Philodendron mexicanum.  Even though the plants are often sold on sites such as eBay as "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" neither species is not found in Brazil!  Those species are from Mexico and Central America and there is no purpose other than to try to pump up the price to call them "Santa Leopoldina".  See number 5 below.  Neither is a form of Philodendron spiritus-sancti.

As is obvious, the use of the common name "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" serves no purpose other than to confuse buyers.  I have always had a dislike for common names as a result of the confusion they cause.  How can anyone possibly know what plant you are speaking about  if all you have is a common name and many plants share the same common name? 

A good example is the common name "elephant ear".  Plants from six different genera have managed to acquire that single common name!  As far as Philodendron species are concerned, many of these pseudo-names apparently came from the books Tropica and Exotica.  Serious collectors are aware of numerous errors in both books since the author was not a botanist or taxonomist.  The author did a wonderful thing by making so many species known to collectors, but the pseudo-names created in those books create a large number of problems since few are botanically verified.  The author was more interested in making the world aware of the vast variety of tropical species rather than in using accurate scientific names.   Many of the names used in those texts are simply incorrect.

Morphogenesis within Philodendron atabapoense, Photos Copyright 2008, Leland MiyanoCollector Leland Miyano from Hawaii made an interesting observation regarding the photos posted below.  Leland was a personal friend of Roberto Burle-Marx and is well acquainted with many of the plants in the Burle-Marx collection and has spent a great deal of time working with those plants.  Roberto Burle=Marx was a famous Brazilian plant collector, artist, and landscape designer.  Bette Waterbury located her original specimens of Philodendron spiritus-sancti with Roberto's assistance.   Leland commented, "If any Philodendron sold as P. spiritus-sancti has long internodes or grows fast it is an imposter.  Even very small plants of Philodendron spiritus-sancti have the short internodes.  Philodendron billietiae as a youngster is the easiest to pass as spiritus-sancti.  Growth in Philodendron spiritus-sancti is very slow...I have seen plants sit there for years without gaining much length in the stem."   If you have a plant you know as "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" the chances are remote it is the rare Philodendron spiritus-sancti.     

I was asked recently why I want to preserve a common name.  If the truth was known, I don't!  Leland summed my feelings well when he said, "Philodendron 'Santa Leopoldina' should be dropped from common usage.  It is of no help and other scientific names should be used for the sundry imposters." 

Certainly, horticulturists who are rarely botanists can call any plant in their collection by any common name they choose but should plant sellers knowingly use the name "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" for any long bladed plant without a known name?  Some argue since A.B. Graf in his books the plant he identifies should take precedence.  Mr. Graf was not a botanist and had no standing in the scientific world of plants but was a horticulturist and collector.   Even though his books are often considered a "bible" to plant collectors, they have no standing in science.  However Brazilian authority Dr. Gonçalves states "Philodendron spiritus-sancti is the closer choice!!!!"

Julius Boos then made this observation regarding Philodendron spiritus-sancti, "this species has been recognized for many years as being 'special', and plants from the original area have been in collections for a long time (60 years??).   Bear in mind that these plants are suspected of living for hundreds of years.  The material used by Dr. Gonçalves in his description is certainly of this species.  The reports of the small number of these plants surviving in 'the wild' are very accurate, as difficult as it is to even comprehend, almost the entire area of what used to be jungle is now cow pastures, a very small remnant of patches small of jungle remain, and the land and these priceless patches (and the remaining plants) are owned by a man (a friend of Dr. Gonçalves) who recognizes this unique plant.  Read Dr. Gonçalves' description of the width-to-length ratio of the leaf, look at the photos and drawings, and you will and can have NO doubt if you have or do not have or are dealing with a legit. specimen of P. s. sancti."

Can any plant with a long blade be sold as "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina"?  Does it really matter?  Jonathan Ertlet may have summed it up best in an email to the Aroid l discussion group,
"Basically what you have run into is the curse of the common name.  It is a challenge compounded here for several reasons, the first being financial, since at least some are going to equate the common name 'Santa Leopoldina' with the extremely rare and therefore extremely valuable Philodendron spiritus-sancti."  Jonathan then continued, "The whole idea of which plant takes precedence for holding this common name is almost implying some sort of pseudo-scientific status for the common name, of which there is none.  It doesn't really matter which plant Graf assigned that common name to - the fact that it has become more widespread is just the way it is.  Some will argue a "rightful owner" for the common name, but since it is a common name the argument doesn't have much substance."  

The person who may explain all of this best is Dr. Gonçalves.  Eduardo sent this extremely informative response to the Aroid l group, "Santa Leopoldina is a city in Espirito Santo state (Southeastern Brazil) where the material was supposed to be collected long time ago. For a weird reason, it seems that plants from that area are proned to have long leaves. (Remember P. stenolobum was also collected nearby). Since than, people have mentioned an outstanding  long leaf P. "Santa Leopoldina', but since you have many species around with long leaves, the name started to be disputed.  Philodendron spiritus-sancti was collected originally in Domingos Martins county (that is the just at the southwestern corner of Santa Leopoldina county). George Bunting never mentioned the name Santa Leopoldina when describing P. spiritus-sancti, but both names were associated further by .......... .  When I re-described wild specimens of P. spiritus-sancti, I reinforced that the only Philodendron "Santa Leopoldina" formally described was this one. To me (as a taxonomist), only formally published names are real names. It is true that other morpho-species (to be named P. superbum as fast as we can obtain wild-collected material of this) has been also associated with the toponym Santa Leopoldina, maybe before any other material. However, Graf's books are great for the horticulturist, but they are very far from being formal in a taxonomic point of view. Since taxonomy is the only official scientific way to deal with the plant diversity, Graf's opinion on nomenclature is completely useless. I won't resist to cite that the Amazonian Philodendron billietae and P. atabapoense, and even the southern P. curvilobum have been named P. "Santa Leopoldina" too. This is the funny side of life...A new law simply appeared: since most philos from Santa Leopoldina have long leaves so every plant with long leaf should be from Santa Leopoldina!!! Pretty smart! (LOL)"  Eduardo continues, "My final word? Learn with your experiences and use one of the mottos: 1. Discussing popular names is funny, but worthless. If you want something that comes closer to unambiguous nomenclature, ask you friend taxonomist to make a type specimen and describe your new plant formally.  2. If you think Horticultural names should be free from "official" taxonomy, follow the horticultural rules and register your cultivar.  3. If you don't like official rules (horticultural or taxonomic), call your plants as you want, but don't bother to discuss it.  4. If you are a plant collector and like to have names in your plants, keep geographical information with them. All the pain could be avoided if plants of the "old" P. Santa Leopoldina had a geographical label on it. Right now, we are not 100% sure that the old P. Santa Leopoldina came in fact from Santa Leopoldina. Philodendron spiritus-sancti is the closer choice!!!!"

Dr. Gonçalves added this final comment in regard to a question posted on Aroid l: "We visited Robert Kautsky, the original collector of the nomenclatural type of P. spiritus-sancti. He gave the plant George Bunting described.  We observed the cultivated specimen he still keeps on his farm (from which dry specimens were prepared) and we spotted similar material around. We have been collecting in Espirito Santo state for years and we could only found this species in Kautsky's farm. Obviously we used classic taxonomic characters to ID it, including sections on flowers. That was not that hard because there is no other species that could be REALLY confused with P. spiritus-sancti, although you can confuse many species under the popular "loose" definition of "Santa Leopoldina".  Right now we are using clones of the type specimen to make a profile based on the "DNA barcode" concept, in to make identifications of P. spiritus-sancti more reliable.  Unfortunately, the "real" identity of P. "Santa Leopoldina" will be hard to find out, mainly because you can't extract DNA from an horticultural legend!"

If you plan on purchasing a plant simply because it is called "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" and you think it may be rare please keep Dr.  Gonçalves comments, along with one of Julius' thoughts in mind, "As discussed (read Eduardo`s article) Santa Leopoldina does not seem to be a legitimate name, so basically anyone can call any Philodendron P. Santa Leopoldina and do with it what they want, so let the er beware."

Below are the plants we have gathered to date using the same common name.  If you look up "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" on the internet you'll find even more!  Only plant #1 appears to be the Philodendron Santa Leopoldina known by Brazilian plant enthusiasts.   Much of the confusion over the name "Philodendron Santa Leopoldina" obviously dates back to the original article published by Bette Waterbury.  Remember, Philodendron species are known to be variable!  Not every leaf of every specimen will always appear the same.  This link explains in non-technical language the science of natural variation and morphogenesis.  Click here.

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Plants Often Sold As Santa Leopoldina
Photo descriptions can be found beneath this photo set.

Philodendron specimens sold as Philodendron Santa Leopoldina, Copyright
Plant #1  This is the real Philodendron spiritus-sancti, known in Brazil by some as Santa Leopoldina.  The first photo came from an International Aroid Society auction.  But look at the second photo, also as #1.  That photo belongs to Brazilian Mauro Piexoto.  Mauro is very familiar with the plant.  His photo can be found on the internet as an official photo of P. spiritus-sancti.  Look at the lobes, it too appears to show variation.  The second to last photo was furnished by Enid Offolter of a plant in Hawaii.  That photo is of the real P. spirtus-sancti.  And the final photo is from Leland Miyano.  Note the unusually narrow leaf blades and pointed lobes of the true Philodendron spiritus-sancti.

Plant #2 is a plant belonging to Michael Pascall.  It too is known as Santa Leopoldina.  We believe this to be superbum.

Plant #3  is a plant belonging to Brian Williams.  It is known as Santa Leopoldina.

Plant #4  This plant belongs to collector Cindy Grossman and is nothing more than a juvenile form of Philodendron atabapoense.  It is also known as Santa Leopoldina but may have the common name 'Roberto' in Australia.   A fuller explanation can be found in #6 below.

Plant #5  This is one of my own plants and was d by one of my daughters on eBay as Santa Leopoldina.  Dr. Croat  ID'd this specimen as either P. angustilobum or P. mexicanum.  It is simply too young to be certain at this time.  Brian commented, "Your #5 I also have and I believe it is a hybrid of mexicanum it does not get as near a long a leaf and much wider back lobes."

Plant #6  A juvenile form of Philodendron atabapoense, this specimen is sometimes sold as the "red backed" form of Santa Leopoldina originally collected by Bette Waterbury in Brazil.  Our specimen came from collector Russ Hammer.  He d the plant as Santa Leopoldina.  This plant has very distinctive blade undersides that are burgundy.  This one is also known by some as 'Roberto'.  Both #4 and #6 have been identified as possible variations of P. atabapoense, however that information is unverified.  Brian again commented, "Your #6 is the most commonly called Santa form. Dewey Fisk gave me a botanical name on this a few years back. I have sense lost it."

Plant #7  Plant belonging to Brian Williams known as Santa Leopoldina.

Plant #8  and Plant #9 belonging to Brian Williams known as Santa Leopoldina.  Brian commented, "Number 8 and 9 are the same plant one is juvenile and grown in a drier area the other photo is more mature. I believe this is the form that will soon be named Superbum."

Plant #9  Plant belonging to Brian Williams known as Santa Leopoldina.

Plant #10  Plant belonging to Brian Williams known as Santa Leopoldina.  This one is very similar to # 6 with the exception the blade underside is green instead of burgundy.  Brian commented, "10 is a collected species unknown from Brazil."  Michael commented it could possibly be a form of P. atabapoense.

Plant #11  Plant belonging to Brian Williams known as Santa Leopoldina.  Brian commented, "an unknown species similar in look to the Santa forms, it has a bluish look to the leaf very shinny looking also."  I'm not going to tell you what Michael said we should call it at first but then commented it could possibly be P. billietiae.


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