Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
Many modern homes have high ceilings. Rather than a bunch of smaller plants on shelves, try growing one large, tall plant. The Swiss cheese plant, with its interesting leaves, is a great choice.
What are Swiss Cheese Plants?
The Swiss cheese plant is native to the jungles of southern Mexico and Panama. It is a member of the Arum family, related to anthuriums and Jack-in-the-Pulpits. The plants have aerial roots which they use to climb trees from the dark floors of the jungles towards the sunlight in the treetops. In the wild, they can reach a height of 30 feet although when grown indoors as a houseplant, it usually only grows to about 10 feet tall.
The most characteristic part of the plant and the one that gives it its nickname is the foliage. The leaves are large, up to 3 feet long, and full of holes like Swiss cheese. It is not known why the leaves have holes. It has been speculated that this increases the surface area of the leaves to maximize photosynthesis in the partial shade of its jungle environment. Another reason for the holes could be to allow rain to go through the leaves instead of beating them down. After all, another name for this plant is Hurricane plant.
The plants flower readily outdoors, but rarely indoors. The flowers look a lot like anthuriums and contain both male and female parts so they are self-pollinating. The flowers produce an edible fruit which is said to taste like a fruit salad. Not surprisingly, other common names for this plant are fruit salad plant and fruit salad tree. The scientific name of the plant is Monstera deliciosa. Monstera refers to the size of the plant while deliciosa refers to the delicious fruit.
The fruit looks like an ear of corn. When it is unripe, it is covered with green scales. As it ripens, the scales turn yellow and then fall off. Once the scales are off, the fruit is edible. It takes an entire year for the fruit to ripen. Be patient! The fruit is not edible until it is ripe. The scales contain oxalic crystals which can irritate the mouth and throat so until those scales fall off, the fruit should not be eaten.
How to Grow Swiss Cheese Plants Outdoors
The Swiss cheese plant is a tropical plant that is only hardy in zones 10 through 11. If you live in a tropical climate it is possible to grow this plant outdoors. It likes very rich soil. Enrich your soil with lots of compost. You will want to give the plant something to climb on, preferably a tree. It prefers filtered sunlight rather than full sun so if you don’t have a tree for it to climb on, a trellis in a shady corner of your yard will do. Plant it at least 20 feet away from power lines, buildings and trees that you don’t want it to climb. The reason is that if it has nothing to climb on, i.e. you didn’t provide it with a tree or trellis, it will creep along the ground looking for something to climb. The way it does this is by moving towards the darkest part of your yard. In the jungle, the darkest place is usually where a tree is growing and casting shade. That is how the seedlings find trees to climb in its native jungle habitat.
Keep your plant well-watered but not soaking wet. A 2 to 6 inch layer of mulch will help the soil stay moist in between waterings. Mulch 2 to 5 feet around the plant to avoid hitting it with your lawn mower which can weaken and then eventually kill the plant. Fertilize 2 or 3 times a year with a balanced fertilizer. You can prune the plant to keep it at a manageable size.
How to Grow Swiss Cheese Plants Indoors
Most gardeners grow their Swiss cheese plants indoors. It’s a great plant for indoors because it prefers low light. Don’t plant it right in front of a sunny window. The leaves turn yellow when it gets too much sun. Place it away from the window. A north facing room is the best for this shade lover.
It won’t get as large as it does outdoors, only growing to about 10 feet. Be sure to give it something to climb on! You can use regular potting soil. Water once a week at most. Allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Here’s neat trick: if you get busy and can’t water your plant regularly, you can take advantage of the fact that it has aerial roots and place one or more of the roots in a pot of water! It will take up the water through that root in addition to any watering you are doing in the pot. Our homes are very dry so mist your plant 2 to 3 times a week to provide humidity.
Fertilize 2 to 3 times a year with a balanced fertilizer as you would if you were growing it outdoors. You can prune your plant to keep it at a manageable size.
How to Grow Swiss Cheese Plants From Cuttings
Swiss cheese plants grow easily from cuttings. Make your cutting just below a leaf node. Strip the bottom leaves off and insert the cut end into a soil filled container. The cuttings root so easily that you don’t need to use any rooting hormone. Keep the soil moist. Roots should develop in a few weeks.
How to Grow Swiss Cheese Plants From Aerial Layering
Another easy way to propagate your Swiss cheese plant is through aerial layering. Locate a stem with an aerial root. Wrap some moistened sphagnum moss around the stem and the aerial root. Then enclose the entire thing in plastic wrap, securing both ends of the wrap. New roots should begin to appear in 1 to 2 months. When the new roots appear, sever the stem below the plastic wrap. You can remove the plastic wrap and plant the stem with new roots in a new container.
Questions & Answers
Question: Can Monstera plants be divided?
Answer: Swiss cheese plants (monstera) can be divided but it is difficult because of the large size of the plants. Just trying to remove the plants from the pot and then cutting the crown in pieces could result in the stems and leaves breaking from the sheer weight. You risk killing your plant. The preferred ways to propagate the plants are by cuttings or layering.
Question: I have a Monstera Deliciousa that is about 40 foot tall in an oak tree. It sent down roots that seem to be dried out/brittle. But the plant itself on the tree is healthy-looking. We want to clean out the large pile of compost like mess under the tree. However, this may cause several of these air roots to no longer be in the ground. As long as we don't disturb the main root, can we "disconnect" the air roots and not harm the plant? I wish I knew how to attach a picture to explain better.
Answer: If you disconnect roots from the ground, the foliage that they support will die. The "compost mess" under your tree is what happens in nature and plants like monstera depend on it to survive. Your best bet would be to leave the mess under the tree as long as it is not harming the tree.
© 2019 Caren White