Monstera are well-known to many houseplant parents. The glossy evergreen leaves give off tropical vibes year-round, and the perforated leaves add an extra layer of interest. Species like Monstera deliciosa and M. adansonii are in-demand houseplants, along with cultivated varieties like the white-speckled ‘Thai Constellation.’ While appreciation is growing for these cultivated houseplants, so too is the botanical understanding of wild Monstera species.
Far from the plant nurseries and sunny breakfast nooks where you are likely to encounter these plants in your day-to-day life, botanists are trekking through forests, climbing trees, and digging through herbarium specimens. Their work has led to some big discoveries—literally.
In 2021, scientists have so far described half a dozen new species of Monstera—including two for the records books! One species has the largest-known inflorescence (flower structure) of any Monstera, and another has the largest-known leaves in the genus.
Among the newly described species is Monstera titanum—a plant with an inflorescence larger than a human head. It is found in the rain forests of central Panama, often climbing up the trunks of trees. It’s large, adult leaves show some of the same perforations that make Monstera so iconic in the plant world. But it is the inflorescence that is truly striking, with the creamy white spathe (the leaf-like covering around the flower spike) growing to more than a foot and a half in length.
Another new species from Panama is Monstera gigas. This species takes its name from the Greek word for ‘giant’ and it’s easy to see why. The leaves can grow to more than nine feet in length. Mick Mittermeir, part of the collecting team who found Monstera gigas, described the discovery in a post on Instagram, “When we found found M. gigas we all passed it as it was well hidden 100 ft above us and bc its leaves resembled Rodospatha wendlandii at first glance.”
Describing More Monstera
The description of these, and other new Monstera species in 2021, highlights how much there is still to learn about the diversity of this genus in the wild.
The first Monstera was described more than 250 years ago, in 1763, by French botanist Michel Adanson (for whom Monstera adansonii is named). The well-known Monstera deliciosa was described in 1849 from a plant collected in Mexico. But the botanical understanding of this genus has really taken off in the last decade or so.
Today, there are about 60 known species of Monstera and that number keeps growing. More than a dozen new species have been described just since the start of 2020. This expanded understanding of Monstera is being driven in part by Marco Cedeño and other collaborators—among them researchers at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Garden taxonomists and the Garden Herbarium have been a key resource in this endeavor.
Cedeño began tackling a review of the Monstera genus for his Master’s thesis at the University of Costa Rica. Others working on this effort include field collaborators like Orlando Ortiz from the University of Panama and Mick Mittermeir (both pictured below with Cedeño), Alejandro Zuluaga of the Universidad del Valle in Colombia, and Garden botanists Tom Croat and Mike Grayum.
Cedeño is also a past recipient of the Garden’s Alwyn H. Gentry Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to St. Louis and work directly with the Garden Herbarium and scientists like Croat and Grayum. The award is part of the Garden’s efforts to help train the next generation of taxonomists and scientists from Latin America.
One of the new Monstera species described in 2021 was named after Gentry, who collected some of the first herbarium specimens of this species, even though it wouldn’t be described as new until decades later.
An herbarium specimen of Monstera gentryi from the Missouri Botanical Garden Herbarium.
The flurry of new discoveries in the Monstera genus shows there is so much more to understand about these wild relatives of one of our favorite houseplants.
Like many plants around the world, wild Monstera face threats such as habitat loss and climate change. Each new species name provides a jumping off point for further study and potential conservation efforts.
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