Go big or go home—an encounter with a towering monstera deliciosa
So you were escaping the summer heat with a stroll through your local greenhouse. You passed a small koi pond and were immediately arrested by a towering, dark green plant with wide, shiny leaves as big as your head. Staring at the holes in the leaves and wondering how a greenhouse could let some insect eat holes in the leaves, you look up quizzically at a passing employee. Her eyes twinkle as she tells you the name of the plant—monstera deliciosa.
Deliciosa? As in delicious? It’s edible?
No, no, no. It’s toxic to kids and pets. In the wild it produces fruit, and it grows even bigger than this.
What’s wrong with it?
Nothing. It’s very healthy and happy here.
Not just for offices and malls anymore
Because the monstera deliciosa grows so large, and is so easy to maintain, it has been popular in old-school shopping malls and waiting rooms for ages. But in recent years, it has become a very popular houseplant—from large homes to small apartments. The monstera makes a great companion to any houseplant collection.
Known by many names, the monstera is also called the Swiss cheese plant (or just a cheese plant), Mexican breadfruit, hurricane plant, or (inaccurately) split-leaf philodendron. Its most distinctive feature, and why it is often called the Swiss cheese plant, is the collection of large leaves that have long, rounded slits and holes. (Nope, no bugs chewing on it.)
The monstera is a tropical plant native to the rainforests of southern Mexico and Central America. It has aerial roots and usually climbs up the sides of trees. In tropical climates, when grown outdoors, those holey leaves help the plant to withstand high winds, which could be where it gets its “hurricane plant” nickname. In its natural habitat, it does produce flowers, which in turn provide fruit. People think the fruit tastes like fruit salad or pineapple (thus it is delisioso). In the right climate, the monstera will also grow up to 10 feet tall and produce leaves larger than 2 feet across. Now we understand the “monster” part of the name.
Come inside, delicious monster
You don’t have to have a large atrium to grow the monstera deliciosa indoors. Just be prepared for the cute little baby you bring home from the flower shop to turn into Baby Huey in a few years since he is easy to grow and pretty tolerant of neglect from time to time.
In a container, you will see a six- to eight-foot tall tree by about year seven. And you are looking at leaves about a foot across. The leaves are poisonous, so keep kids and pets away. If they try to chomp down on one of the leaves, they will experience severe burning in the mouth. Unless, of course, you follow the Mexican recipe for turning it into arthritis-easing tea, which we do not recommend. (There are safer herbal remedies out there!)
How to make cheese from leaves
When you buy your monstera, be sure to look for glossy, dark green leaves. There are variegated (stripy and patterned) varieties, but these tend to revert back to the plain, dark green leaves after some time, so don’t get too attached to this look. Young plants without windows (which will develop later) are often sold as Philodendron pertusum. And there is also the stunning monstera deliciosa variegate, a rare, slower-growing, green and white speckled variety.
Your monstera is a bit of a Goldilocks when it comes to sunlight. Moderate to bright sunlight is best, as long as it is not direct. Too much sunlight, and the leaves will scorch. Too little sunlight, and the leaves won’t develop fully. Then you’ll have to use a hole punch to get holes in the leaves (just kidding—don’t do that).
You will want to plant your monstera in a larger pot with good drainage in a fairly heavy potting mix. Combine 2 parts clean, bagged topsoil, 2 parts peat moss, and 1 part sand or perlite. Keep it in an average to warm spot in the house. If it gets too cold, the leaves may yellow, and you might wonder if you’ve been over watering it. You will want to water it only when the soil is dry within about an inch deep. Water less in the winter and more in summer. And remember, as a tropical plant, your monstera will thrive in high humidity, so if you live in a dry climate, mist its leaves a few times a week to keep the big cheese happy. If you notice the leaves looking brown and crispy around the edges, it’s either asking for a spritz or a bigger pot. Feed it every two weeks or so spring through summer with a general houseplant fertilizer. Dilute it and drop back to monthly feedings in the wintertime.
Your monstera will be with you for many, many years if you give it room to grow. Every other spring repot your monstera in a larger pot with room for the aerial roots (we’ll explain those below). Since this plant is used to climbing trees, you will want to give it a moss-covered a post. The bigger (and older) the plant, the bigger the post you will want to use. You can make these yourself; however, it is a lot easier and a bit less expensive to buy one from your local greenhouse.
Monstera deliciosa plants have a special type of root called aerial roots, which are exactly what enable them to climb up the trees that support them in the rainforests. These roots, which are about the diameter of a pencil, also gather moisture from the air. You will find that these roots like to sprout up wildly. If they start to get out of control, it means it is either time to repot the plant or groom the roots. You can trim them, but it is better for the plant if you just tuck them back into the soil. You could also train the longer ones to cling to the plant’s post.
When your plant gets too big for its pot, you can propagate it by air layering a strong-looking stem tip, which is the easiest and most reliable method to grow this plant for a friend. You can also do it as a stem tip cutting. If you aren’t familiar with air layering, here are the basics: apologize for what you are about to do, and steel yourself. Take a sharp knife and wound a strong, healthy stem. Dust the wound with rooting powder, and then “bandage” it with damp sphagnum moss. Wrap this loosely in plastic (to allow room for roots to grow) and tape the top and bottom ends with electrical tape, making sure to leave a tiny opening at the top to be able to add water. Every few days, dribble a little water in there to keep it moist. After about a month or so, you should see new roots growing, and you can remove the wound dressing. When you have about 2 inches worth of roots, finish the job by cutting the branch below the new roots and plant it just like a new baby plant. Give it to a friend and support them by explaining how to care for it. (Or start it in another part of your home, of course.) And be sure to talk to someone at your greenhouse or consult a more detailed book for ultimate success with this one.
We like the monstera deliciosa as a houseplant for so many reasons. Not only is it easy and low-maintenance, it will grow with you. So if you are just starting out in your first apartment this is a perfect plant for you. As you grow personally, your monstera will grow physically. You will both outgrow your homes, and your families will probably get bigger, too. So you will both need a little more space in which to thrive. Take care of your delicious monster, and you will look back one day on all you have been through together.