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What’s Wrong with My Monstera?

Monsteras are incredibly popular houseplants, ranging in price from ten dollars to thousands of dollars. It’s easy to see the appeal—the wow factor they add to a room is undeniable. Still, many people have trouble keeping their monsteras healthy. Doing so becomes much easier with a little knowledge of the plant’s native habitat and natural growth habit. Learning this will help you foster growth and diagnose any problems before they progress.

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You will see plenty of amazing monsteras on social media. Keeping them healthy might require some sleuthing.

Monstera is a genus of 45 species of flowering tropical plants (some with edible fruit) belonging to the Araceaem, or arum, family, and it is predominantly native to Central America. The most common houseplant varieties are from just two species: Monstera adansonii and M. deliciosa. This funky plant’s genus name is derived from the Latin word for “monstrous” or “abnormal,” referring to the natural leaf holes inherent in the genus. Its common name is Swiss cheese plant.

Monstera deliciosa leaves. Photo by Blanca Begert.

Those leaf holes, called fenestrations, allow the plant to gather light beneath the tree canopy while limiting its leaf mass so the plant can support itself more efficiently. This is particularly helpful because Monstera plants are evergreen vines that will climb more 60 feet up a tree. They anchor themselves to the tree using aerial roots that hook over branches. They will also grow into the soil. That’s what those brown, hooklike protrusions are on your Monstera—aerial roots.

If your monstera plant isn’t thriving, don’t feel bad—identifying where you went awry isn’t too difficult and is usually easy to fix. First, we look at the leaves, then the roots.

If you see brown burn marks on the leaves, your plant is receiving too much direct sun. Remember, these plants evolved to live in the filtered light beneath the tree canopy. Relocate your plant so that it doesn’t receive direct sunlight. While those burned leaves won’t heal, the next batch should be blemish-free. You can keep or prune those leaves depending on the severity. Be sure to wash your clippers in rubbing alcohol first!

the leaf of a monstera plant showing brown and yellow dry spots
Photo by Michelle Inciarrano.

If the leaves are wilting or falling off easily, chances are your plant is overwatered. Another strong indicator: a combination of yellow and brown on the same leaf, or a black ring around the stems where the plant touches the soil. At this point you’ll need to do the pinky test—stick your pinky down in the soil as far as it will go. Do you feel water and/or slime? If so, you’ll need to change the soil and prune the bad roots. You should use a fungicide such as neem oil on the roots to help prevent further rot.

If the leaves are fully yellow and/or there is brown, crispy new growth, chances are it’s underwatered. If the soil feels dry, water it incrementally and intermittently (every half hour or so) until the soil has expanded again. If your planter has a drainage hole, another option is bottom watering. Place the pot in a shallow tray of water for a couple of hours. When the top of the soil is moist, it’s time to remove the tray. Trim off the crispy leaves to allow for new growth.

If the leaves are yellowing but show green veins, it's likely you have a nutrient-deficient monstera. Fertilizing during the spring and summer is preferred because the plant is in its growth cycle, but you can create a gentle fertilizer from banana peels, egg shells, and coffee grinds, and use sparingly when you notice the problem, to give your plant the boost it needs. Then, during the spring and summer, it’s best to water monthly with a diluted soluble 20-20-20 fertilizer.

If the leaves are yellowing or browning at the edges, it’s likely you have nutrient burn. The best response is to flush the plant out with water. This means putting it in the sink or bathtub, and letting water gently run through the pot. Do this at least twice. Most plants recover fine without further care, but it’s best to use slightly acidic water until it bounces back fully. A balance of 5.5–6.5 is best, and you can easily purchase supplies as a kit. Let the water sit for a couple of hours to let the chlorine dissipate.

Infestations are not typical to monsteras, but houseplants are known for passing on some pests if they are grouped together. A close inspection of the leaves and stem will show a white webbing, or white foam, raised dark spots, and small flies around your plant—these are all signs of an infestation. Mealy bugs, aphids, and fungus gnats can all be treated with a good dousing of neem oil or insecticidal soap.

Polishing your leaves isn’t necessary, but it forces you to inspect the leaves and nip any problems right away. You can use any brand of leaf shine, or even mayonnaise, to wipe your plant down with a soft cloth. This also removes dust from the large leaves and gives them a beautiful shine.

a potted monstera on a table in a home
A monstera thriving as a houseplant. Photo by Michelle Inciarrano.

Monsteras are incredibly tough, and are known to bounce back. May you have many happy years together!

Tips for Raising Your Monster

  • If you want your monstera to grow taller, you need to give it something treelike to climb. Some people create or buy a moss pipe/pole for this purpose.
  • “Tropical” means that it prefers a humid environment. It can adapt to a less humid environment, but humidity is helpful.
  • “Tropical” does not mean impervious to root rot! Your monstera’s roots prefer to dry a bit in between waterings. You can mist in between, but water every week or so. Humidity is not the same as watering, and if you tend to overwater, make sure there is adequate drainage.
  • Like many tropical vines, monstera plants grow under the canopy of large trees. As houseplants, they will prefer medium-bright, indirect sun. Direct sun can burn a brown hole in their leaves.
  • Philodendron bipinnatifidum leaf
    Philodendron bipinnatifidum. Photo by Brian Williams.
  • Make sure you actually have a monstera. Monsteras are frequently confused with split-leafed philodendrons, which are also sometimes referred to as Swiss cheese plants. Split-leaf philodendrons are actually a different species (Philodendron bipinnatifidum) in a different plant family. Instead of than having fenestrations, their leaves are deeply lobed, or split. They also prefer less light than monsteras.

Michelle Inciarrano co-authored Tiny World Terrariums: A Step-by-Step Guide and is a continuing education instructor at Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

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