Peter Loewer is a gardener and writer in Asheville, NC. You can find a selection of his books in our online bookstore at statebystategardening.com/shop.

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Monstera
by Peter Loewer       #Plant Profile   #Unusual   #Vines

Looking through a jumble of monstera leaves, one lacks only an ambling boa constrictor to complete the feeling of being lost in a jungle.


It was AMC’s Mad Men that first reminded me of Monstera deliciosa, a houseplant that was popular during the 1950s and 60s. It was so prolific that variety stores of the day sold fiberglass pots just for the plant in colors of red, yellow, white or avocado, with shiny brass rods to hold the containers up off the floor.

Today, many once-popular horticultural trends are just as passé as swim-tops for men and iceberg lettuce in a salad. Remember when everybody had an air plant pinned to the curtains in most rooms of the house and gardeners were happy to have plain white petunias? If you don’t recall those days of yore, you certainly will not remember the popularity once surrounding the Monstera deliciosa, or Swiss-cheese plant. Other common names include ceriman, breadfruit vine, hurricane plant, Mexican breadfruit and the fruit-salad plant. Along the coastal parts of Sicily it’s called Zampa di leone, or lion’s paw, and it also does very well in many areas of Central America.

A xerograph (or glass lithograph) featuring my aunt’s monstera that reached for the skylight in her living room.

George and Virginia Elbert described the plant nicely in their book Foliage Plants for Decorating Indoors, written in the 1950s. “Out-of-doors in the tropics they climb to the very tops of trees, creating a giant tapestry of overlapping leaves. Indoors they are being used to some extent in high-ceilinged, sunny and warm, principally southern-oriented displays. Whether they will continue to be is the question, for they are all rampant vines.”

It is true they are rampant vines. My aunt had a monster plant in her high-ceiling living room, and over the years the vine reached the ceiling and arched over, requiring guy-wires. The plant only saw its end when they sold the house and moved.

The botanical name, Monstera, is Latin for strange or monstrous, and points to some of the oddities associated with this rambling vine. These include aerial roots that usually never touch the ground and large, glossy leaves full of deeply lobed cutouts and neatly cut round or oval holes, hence the common name Swiss-cheese plant.

No one has ever successfully proven why the leaves are full of holes, but it has been suggested that heavy tropical rains could drain through without causing undue damage. Also, hurricane-force winds can whistle right through the leaves, thus leaving the vines safely clinging to their hosts.


The metal sculpture above is a monstera leaf about 20 inches high, including the stem.

The 3-foot, glossy green leaves are most attractive, especially against a white wall or twining around a window where they enjoy partial shade or diffused sunlight. I like to keep one around for the striking leaves.

Monstera has a juvenile form where its leaves are split but have not yet developed the holes. This form is known incorrectly as Philodendron pertusum. There is also a cultivar available called ‘Variegata’ that bears irregular light-yellow or off-white patches on the leaf, as if a house painter had flung paint at the plant. I would stay away from it, unless you have a penchant for truly odd variegations. Monstera plants are available almost anywhere houseplants are sold.

To care for your plant, temperatures should never fall too far below 50 F. An excellent soil mix is one-third each of good potting soil, compost and sand. The soil should be kept evenly moist.

Propagation can be done by stem cuttings, which should include two or more stem segments or buds. These can be taken at any time of the year. Root them in warm, sandy compost. Seed, when available, will also germinate with ease if started in a warm place.


A picture of the monstera’s flower and the developing fruit taken at the Biltmore Conservatory in Asheville, NC.
 

The big event occurs when a monstera plant is comfortable in its position. It will show you by flowering and then producing fruit. The flowers themselves are very small and criss-cross a greenish-yellow spadix that is enclosed in a white, waxy spathe. They resemble a calla lily or a white Jack-in-the-pulpit, which is not surprising since they all belong to the Araceae family. Over a few months’ time, the spadix begins to resemble a large ear of corn as it continues to turn yellow, and then the covering of scales falls away.

In a salute to the happy memories of the 50s and 60s, you can’t go wrong with a monster in the house.

 

A version of this article appeared in Carolina Gardener Volume 24 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Peter Loewer.

 

Posted: 11/28/17   RSS | Print

 

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