Some botanical names make me wonder about the botanists who dictated them, and this is one of those examples. Yes, Monstera deliciosa has monstrous leaves. And yes, its fruit, tasting of a mix of pineapple and banana, are indeed delicious. I like to think, however, that Frederik Michael Liebmann, the botanist who named this species, had a bit of a sense of humour. More likely Liebmann, a Danish botanist, never thought of what this name might sound like to an English speaker, thinking only that Monstera deliciosa sounded rather intellectual next to the Danish words uhyreI (“monster”) and lækker (“delicious”).
Monstera deliciosa is a tropical species, native to southern Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of Costa Rica and Panama. This species is often grown as a fast-growing, large house plant. It is a robust climbing vine that will reach up to 20 m in height if it is given the opportunity. Mature plants produce several inflorescences that emerge from the leaf axils. The Monstera deliciosa inflorescence consists of an erect spadix enclosed in a white, boat-shaped spathe. The corn cob-like spadix is covered in tiny white flowers. When pollinated, the spadix develops into a compound fruit that is covered in hexagonal scales. The fruit matures very slowly, taking as long as a full year to ripen. When ripe, the scales fall off, revealing creamy yellow fruit below. These fruit are tasty, but are the only part of the plant that is not toxic. High levels of oxalic acid found in the rest of the plant, including in unripe fruit, produce immediate blistering, irritation, and swelling in those who are unfortunate enough to consume it.
The glossy-green, cordate leaves of Monstera deliciosa become perforated with holes as they mature, earning this species the common name of Swiss cheese plant. Upon seeing the fenestrated leaves of Swiss cheese plant, I immediately wondered how a plant species would benefit from such an unusual leaf shape. Christopher Muir, from Indiana University’s Department of Biology, wondered the same thing. In the article How Did the Swiss Cheese Plant Get its Holes?, Muir asserted that the unpredictable sunflecks in a tropical rainforest canopy drive leaf fenestration. In order to understand Muir’s hypothesis, one must first understand the role that variance in fitness has on genetic selection. Negative fluctuations in fitness produce a greater effect than positive fluctuations, so (other factors aside) individuals with the lowest amount of variance are the most successful (see Why the Variance in Fitness Matters). Although fenestrated leaves don’t harvest a greater amount of light from sunflecks on average, Muir shows that this shape decreases the amount of variance in the levels of sunlight reaching Monstera leaves. It is better for a Monstera leaf to receive a single patch of sunlight over two days than it is for the same leaf to receive a patch of light double the size one day, and no light the next.