The Swiss Cheese Plant: More Than Its Looks
The Swiss cheese plant, as it is known in the English speaking world, is probably one of the most well known houseplants. It is native to tropical rainforests of southern Mexico that extend down south to Panama and Colombia. Its scientific name Monstera deliciosa comes from its leaves enormous size, from the Latin word for "monstrous" or "abnormal”, and from the peculiar and yet delicious flavour of its fruit, thus the Latin word deliciosa. Technically, they are herbs or evergreen vines. They are fast growers climbing up trees or any other support they can get up to heights of 20 m or more with large, leathery, glossy, heart-shaped leaves. To do this, they rely on aerial roots which act as hooks over branches, cracks or any other supporting structures. The aerial roots although start by serving as means of supporting the plant body will also grow into the soil to help support the plant and obtain water and nutrients. So, whenever possible and if you have one of these plants back home instead of leaving the roots lying around remember to point one or two of those to the soil, or even bury the tip if possible. You will see that it will grow fast and become strong and it will avoid you figuring it out how to support the ever growing monstera.
Swiss cheese plants are also quite easy to propagate. Basically you just take a stem cut, preferably with a node, the part where a leave attaches itself to the stem, and put it in water. Indoors and away from direct sunlight, you will have new roots appearing in two to three week time. I have done this several times and in fact it is the most common way of propagating similar plant species. Philodendrons and all related plants are propagated this way. Swiss cheese plants grow easily in shade and preferably with high humidity between 20 ºC (68 ºF) to 30 ºC (86 ºF) in rich organic soil. However, they are quite resistant and adaptable plants, so do not bother if you forget to water them for one or two weeks. If you grow these strange looking plants from seed, you will notice that their leaves become differente as the plant matures. They start as normal medium size heart-shaped leaves that become larger, lobed and holed. Many theories have been suggested for these unusual perforated leaves. Some authors suggested that they may help the plant to sustain strong winds, by letting wind pass though, regulate leaf temperature or even serve as camouflage to avoid herbivores. However, none of these seemed to be correct or tested scientificly. The Swiss cheese plant Monstera deliciosa lives most of its life in the dark understorey of tropical rainforests, rarely getting full sunlight on its leaves. Therefore, it relies on capturing unpredictable shafts of sunlight, known as "sunflecks", in order to photosynthesise for energy. How is this done? Well, the advantage lies on the fact that having holes on its leaves alows Monstera deliciosa to expand its leaves more, thus achieving a larger leaf area, than a plant with leaves of the same mass but without holes. Both plants will in principle spend the same amount of energy on producing leaves of the same mass. However, by becoming larger Swiss cheese plant will increase the chances of getting more sunflecks than a normal plant without holes. Hence, riddled and holed leaves will contact sunlight more regularly because they take up more space, therefore, getting more energy to photosynthesise. Obviously, by living in the shade the Swiss cheese plant will also lose many sunflecks but instead of having some portion of its leaves in the shade, possibly there will be a hole of its leave, thus causing no problem to plant, instead of a portion of leave like it happens in non-holed leaves. Therefore, holed and lobed leaves seem to be a strange yet quite efficient adaptation of the Swiss cheese plant to its rainforest habitat. Swiss cheese plants also grow quite happily on full sun conditions if one lets them, but their typical strange lobed and holed leaves remain.
Swiss Cheese Plant Natural Habitat
A Delicious Fruit
Swiss cheese plants are also cultivated for its edible fruit which taste like a combination of banana and pineapple. Basically it pretty much depends on its growing conditions. Unfortunately, it rarely flowers indoors. The best way to obtain its delicious fruit is to growth them outdoors on a shady corner or under some bigger tree. In our backyard we had one to which my mother took very special care of. But the effort really paid of. One thing you must know when handling these plants and in fact all the Araceae species is that all parts of the plant are poisonous except the fruit when is ripe. They all produce calcium oxalate which gives its bitterness and distasteful flavour, and it can also cause severe symptoms, like burning in the mouth and throat, when ingested in high doses. Usually and again depending on the growing conditions the fruit takes about one year or so to mature in the plant. Luckily if grown well these plants give many fruits every year. They usually bloom in summer and take two to three years of age to mature if grown from seed. The question is when to collect them. Well the fruit is always green and as it matures it becomes darker and bigger. It has some hexagonal scale like segments which start to lose themselves when ripe, after one year or so upon growing. At this point the fruit is no longer poisonous. Underneath you will find the juicy and tasty white pulp. To me it always tasted like a sweet banana. Not all parts of the fruit mature at the same time. That has the advantage that you can leave it and taste it as it matures. Better to wrap it up in aluminum foil and leave it at room temperature. So, if you have one of this exotic green “monster” as a houseplant it sure pays the effort of looking it beyond its looks and see it as a source of an exotic delicacy.
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