Thursday, December 20, 2007

Athlete (Monstera deliciosa)


The connection here, if you want to be picky about it, is kinda shaky. Monsteras don't do anything especially athletic. I mean, it's not like they run or swim or ride bicycles.1 But they do climb, and there's something about them – the size of the leaves, the thickness of the trunks, the overall robustness of the plants – that made this seem like a reasonable connection, and it's not like there were other plants that made any more sense (I considered Dieffenbachia spp. too, but I have another "person" in mind for them, eventually, after this Breakfast Club thing is over.), so there you go.

I went through a serious Monstera phase a little over a year ago, and then had a resurgence of enthusiasm in late winter 2007. They're not good plants to get obsessive about. I mean, don't get me wrong, they're nice plants, but they get huge. If you're prone to collecting plants, this is not a good way to go: now I have three big plants in 8-inch pots, and almost no places to put them where they could be happy. And they're only getting bigger.

Like the corresponding character in the movie, Monstera deliciosa pretty much just does what it's told. You put it in a hanging basket, it'll hang and get huge:

Photo: my own.

Give it something to climb, and it'll climb and get huge:

Photo: Raul654 at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

Want variegation? Consider it done. Hugely.

Ask it for food, and it'll give you an edible fruit . . . though not right away: it takes a year to ripen, and however long to convince it to flower. Even the most people-pleasing plants have their limits. But still. The flowers are – you guessed it - huge:

Photo: A9l8e7n at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

Photo: Bozejmonstera at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

and the fruit (which is huge!) tastes like some kind of cross between pineapple, banana, jackfruit, and mango, which I assume is the plant's way of yet again trying to be all things to all people:2

Photo: B. navez at the Wikipedia entry for Monstera deliciosa.

The fruit is not likely to be a commercial crop anytime real soon, as it's very slow to develop (a lot of things could go wrong in a year of storage: it seems like that fact alone would make commercial fruit producers a little skittish), and unripe fruit is poisonous in roughly the same way that a Dieffenbachia is: immediate pain and swelling, itching, and blistering. Whether this is ever life-threatening, I don't know, but it seems unlikely that there's a place in the world market for a potentially painful fruit that takes a year to ripen and tastes just like everything else anyway. There are, even so, reports of the occasional regional recipe, like the Halloween dish "West Indian Pumpkin Pound Cake with a Monstera Mash Anglaise" mentioned here, in passing (sadly, there's a book you apparently have to buy before you get the recipe. I give him/r points for cleverness, though, for making it a Halloween dish so the "monster mash" pun could be used.).

It is, of course, very unusual for a plant to flower and set fruit indoors. So let's don't get carried away.

The plant has a number of unusual adaptations to its natural habitat (It's an understory plant in rainforests from Mexico south to Panama.). The most obvious one is the perforated leaves, which are pretty obviously a compromise between the need to have a lot of leaf area, to maximize light collection, and the need to minimize wind resistance during intense storms. Perforations allow wind to flow through without making the leaves completely useless for light collection.

Photo: my own.

Other plants have had different ideas on the matter: the bananas and bird of paradise, Musa and Strelitzia species, respectively, go ahead and grow gigantic leaves but make them in a way such that they tear themselves to strips in high winds, leaving all the leaf area still available for light collection but with no more wind resistance than a palm frond. Philodendron bipinnatifidum uses a similar approach, but builds the tears into the leaf from the beginning. Maple trees, Acer, have gone a whole different way, by constructing the leaves so that they fold into cones in high winds,3 which reduces drag and also reduces wear and tear.

Another notable adaptation, which I personally think is like the coolest thing ever, is that when a Monstera seedling first sprouts, it exhibits negative phototropism, also called scototropism (scoto being the Greek root for darkness or blindness), growing in whichever direction is darkest. Why? Because that's where the tallest tree trunks are going to be, and once it can find a tree trunk, it can scramble up and get good light. If it had to make a living from what light is available on the forest floor, it'd be screwed.

The aerial roots are a related phenomenon. From a houseplant-growers' perspective, aerial roots are kind of annoying: they're not what you'd call pretty,4 and if you can't bend them toward a source of moisture (they're brittle, like the rest of the plant, so until they get to a certain length, it's difficult to get them to go where you want without breaking them), they just hang there, useless. They can be cut off, with no harm to the plant, though I generally try to leave mine alone. In the wild, of course, the aerial roots can acquire some additional moisture, and incidentally anchor the plant (which brings us back to the whole high-winds situation), but even there, aerial roots don't seem to be required so much as just frequently handy.

Care is relatively straightforward: because they are adapted to survive in the understory of the rainforest, light levels are negotiable. They like sun, if you can swing it, but if not, don't worry about it, they'll make do. The same goes for heat and humidity, pretty much: you're not going to get a giant plant, or fruit, without a lot of light, heat and humidity, but if you're just wanting the plant to stay alive, you can do almost anything you like. They are a little touchy about cold (the growers' guide, oddly, doesn't mention Monstera, but from observation at work, I'm thinking they're okay as long as they stay above about 55ºF / 13ºC.).

Watering is the one area I have difficulty with, and especially lately: I have a tendency to overdo watering on aroids in general,5 but I'm especially bad about this with Epipremnum aureum and Monstera deliciosa. Part of the problem is that I have mine in those plastic pots with the saucers that can pop on and off: this is a good idea in theory, but they don't drain as well, since the bottoms of the pots usually only have like four smallish drainage holes in the first place (as opposed to eight larger ones in a grower pot), and then two of those get plugged up when you attach the saucer. So it's not the same as trying to grow a plant in a pot with no drainage, but it's not as different as it ought to be.

Photo: my own.

I've tried drilling additional holes in the bottoms of the pots, which mostly breaks them (They're prone to breaking anyway: just pulling the saucers free from the pot has cracked several of mine, and then they leak, which makes me all kinds of angry), and I hate to repot the Monsteras because they took a long time to settle down when I moved them the first time.6

The point of all this being – since I tend to overwater aroids anyway, and since my Monsteras are in a drainage situation where they're likely to hold water for a lot longer than they should, and since they continue, however reluctantly, to survive, I'm thinking that they're able to handle a certain amount of overwatering. Though it's still probably best to let them dry to somewhere between one-fourth and one-half dry before giving them water again. Possibly even less.

One more parallel with the character in the movie ("Andrew"): Monsteras are horrible at thinking for themselves. In the wild, where they have all the heat and moisture to draw on, they can scramble up a tree with the best of them, but indoors, you generally have to tell them where to step. The ideal arrangement is said to be a mesh pole of some kind, filled with sphagnum moss or some other material that can be kept damp: the mesh permits one to guide the aerial roots into the pole, and the plant can anchor itself, and the damp moss inside the pole gives the plant the motivation. I've never been lucky enough to find a pole like this when I needed one, so I've had to make do with a pole made of plastic, with a half-inch layer of coir (coconut fiber) wrapped around it, and tie the plants to the pole. I don't think any of the plants have taken to this particularly well, mostly because coir doesn't really hold water at all, but even if I had found one of these poles in time, I couldn't afford to add water to it very often because of the aforementioned inadequate drainage situation. The ones at work get tied up, too, except for the few in hanging baskets. They don't seem to object too much.

-

Photo credits:

Emilio Estevez: from leavemethewhite.com; all others: see text.


1 To my knowledge, anyway. I suppose we can't rule out a little bit of bike-riding.
2 In fact, all the accounts I ran across mentioned pineapple, and most of them mentioned banana, so I'm assuming that those are probably the dominant flavors. Still, it's called "fruit salad plant" once in a while, so it's not really supposed to taste like any particular thing.
3 Check it out, if you can find a leaf that's fresh enough to be pliable. They do.
4 Unless you have unusual tastes, I guess: I shouldn't make blanket statements like that about what people will think is pretty.
5 They just look so damn tropical that I assume they must be thirsty. Sadly, this logic, while satisfying to my brain, doesn't travel to the real world very well.
6 Which failure to settle may well have been because I stuck them in a pot that didn't have as much drainage as I thought.


14 comments:

MrBrownThumb said...

I've always liked this plant and have resisted buying it because I wouldn't have anywhere to put it.

But seeing it grow everywhere I go from the bank, to the restaurants and passing it walking past a laundromat is very tempting.

If I come across another large plant for 10 bucks this spring I may not be able to resist.

Jessie said...

I bought one of the fruits in a grocery store in Massachusetts a few years ago. It seemed really exciting, but it had almost no flavor at all.

A9l8e7n said...

wow, you actually used the picture i took of my monstera flower. Im glad you enjoy it.

Jon VanZile said...

I know I'm late to the party, but I completely related to this post. I went through a serious monstera phase a while back—they were probably my first true love with tropicals.

I actually made my own mesh pole filled with sphagnum moss, but I could never get indoor plants to climb effectively. In fact, I've never really seen an indoor plant (outside of a an atrium) climb. I've heard various explanations for it, but nothing I'd hang my hat on. Also, monstera (like many aroids) exhibit a juvenile leaf form. Although their mature leaf form is connected to climbing (as with the Epipremnum), the mature leaves are pretty awesome. They closely resemble P. bipinnatifidum, except they typically have holes down the leaf midrib. Nevertheless, I still see P. bipinnatifium sometimes mislabled as M. deliciosa and vice versa.

I've also found that the young plants are much less sun tolerant than mature monstera. A mature monstera can take nearly full sun (which makes sense, since that's where climbing for in the forest), while immature leaves can easily scorch if exposed to direct sunlight.

Anyway, this is a fantastic post on monstera, and you've got some pretty amazing indoor monstera!

insideout said...

So, I know I'm super-duper late to this conversation, but I just bought one of these at the grocery store. For some reason, in Texas (or at least in San Antonio and North Texas) I have only come across 3 Monsteras in 8 years!!! No idea why. In Canada there were a lot. Anyway, besides the point, I want to know if fertilizer does anything for them...I'm going to see if my Monstera will respond to fertilizer or not. I'm very excited to have this plant, and a little bothered that it gets confused with philodendron so often (the label on my recently bought Monstera says "Philodendron Swiss Cheese" talk about making it unnecessarily confusing!) since it looks way cooler to me.

mr_subjunctive said...

insideout:

They might respond to fertilizer; I'm kind of testing that right now.

Anonymous said...

Bought one earlier this year. It was about a meter high when I bought it and after a half year it's now nearly double the size!

I'm keeping the environment hot and I'm spraying the stem trying to keep it humid, hoping it will flower someday soon.

Really cool seeing the first split leaf, and even better when it finally starts growing bigger and bigger leaves with holes in them. I can get really excited each time it starts growing a new leaf. This time next year it'll probably reach the ceiling.

An uncle of mine once had one of these grow across the ceiling in his living room using glasses of water to feed it through its aerial roots. Don't know yet what I'm gonna do.....

Terrence said...

Hi, these are really nice plants! I agree! I'm going through a monstera phase currently. Do you have cuttings available that you can send? I really would like to add this plant to my indoor garden. Hopefully this can be done. Have a great night!

mr_subjunctive said...

Terrence:

I don't at the moment. (I used to have a large plant that I could take cuttings from, but it got too unwieldy to keep, so I sold it last winter.)

Tropilab is currently selling seeds (at a rate of 100 seeds for $8). I haven't dealt with Tropilab before personally, but I have more confidence in them than I would in, say, eBay or Amazon. By most accounts, the seeds are easy to germinate, but slow to develop.

Betsy P. said...

In regard to punching holes in plastic pots, have you tried heating an awl over a flame and then pushing it through? Melts the plastic and slides right in. I ruined a couple of pots before I figured that one out.

mr_subjunctive said...

Betsy P.:

I haven't, but it hasn't come up lately; this is a pretty old post (2007), and I solved the problem by just buying a different kind of pot.

Jan M said...

I think this is the plant I have growing out of control in my greenhouse. I love the plant BUT how do I get it not to continue to grow horozontally. It grows longer rather than higher...the leaves are abot 10" Any help would be appreciated.

mr_subjunctive said...

Jan M:

Does it have something to climb on?

Booeep said...

I have one of these growing in an open air stairwell in San Francisco. It's actually quite tolerant of our winter lows in the 40s and even high 30s.