Monstera Deliciosa Are Epiphytes. Here’s What That Means

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Monstera are hemiepiphytes, which means they’re not true epiphytes – they spend some portion of their life cycle with their roots in the the ground.

True epiphytes, like Hoyas, spend their entire lives living on another plant, whereas Monstera germinate in the ground.

What is an epiphyte?

An epiphyte is a plant that grows non-parasitically on another plant. They germinate in the crooks of tree branches, and their roots attach or wrap around to the tree to provide support.

There are loads of different epiphytes, and we keep several of them as houseplants.

Air plants are epiphytes. They don’t have traditional subterranean roots, so if you try to keep them in traditional houseplant substrates like soil, they just rot.

Hoyas are another epiphyte that are commonly kept as houseplants. Unlike air plants, they’re pretty happy to live in a pot with their roots in potting mix. Not all Hoya are epiphytes, but most of the ones you’ll find in the houseplant industry are.

hoya kerrii in the wild
Hoya kerrii

Bromeliads are epiphytes which like to absorb water through the crown in the centre of their leaves. I don’t know if bromeliads are happy to live in soil, or if they’re just so chill they’ll tolerate it without fuss.

Phalaenopsis and dendrobium orchids are epiphytes. All the roots they have are aerial roots.

They’re often sold with their roots in an orchid bark substrate, but I prefer to keep mine in a jar with no substrate (because I’m less likely to forget about it when I can see the roots, for some reason).

Their roots can photosynthesize, so it seemed like an easy way to help them grow. 

I just soak the roots once a week and it seems to be doing well. It's produced a flower spike and a leaf at any rate.

Are Monsteras epiphytes?

Monstera are hemiepiphytes.

In the wild, Monsteras propagate by producing fruit, then seeds. The seeds are then spread by, I assume, birds (they seem too big to be windblown or distributed by insects).

monstera deliciosa fruit

When the seeds germinate, they do so on the ground, unlike true epiphytes, which spend their whole lifecycle on another plant.

Monstera seedlings root in the ground, but they display negative phototropism, which means they grow towards the shade, hoping to find themselves at the bottom of a tree that they can begin to climb.

As Monstera climb, they produce aerial roots. The primary function of aerial roots is to help them attach to their host NOT to absorb moisture and nutrients. However, should their connection to the ground be compromised, their aerial roots can keep them alive – I suppose making them epiphytes.

monstera aerial roots in the wild

There are other hemiepiphytes which take the opposite approach – they germinate up in the trees and then their roots grow down until they root in the ground.

Is Monstera deliciosa parasitic?

No, they don’t damage the tree they’re growing up – or at least not on purpose. They absorb nutrients and moisture from the air, and presumably the surface of their host, but they don’t sap the life out of them. It serves more as a climbing frame.

Monstera don’t need a tree to climb up – that’s just what’s available to them in the wild. A wall will do perfectly well.

Presumably, if Monstera did any significant damage to the host tree, then trees where Monstera grow would have come up with some defence.

It’s more likely that the small amount of moisture the Monstera absorb from the host is offset by the protection the Monstera provides. It could help to cool the host plant on hot days and provide a barrier from anything looking to eat its bark.

Monstera are mildly toxic – their leaves contain calcium oxalate crystals which cause numbness in the mouth and a stomach upset which might make an animal think twice before chomping on it.

monstera deliciosa climbing wall

Can you grow Monstera as epiphytes?

You can grow them without any substrate, but you’ll need to soak the roots in water/nutrient water every few days.

A lot of people grow Monstera up sphagnum moss poles.

The aerial roots grow into the moss and develop into a secondary root system. If you have a healthy root system in the moss the Monstera technically wouldn’t need its subterranean roots any more.

This isn't something most of us are looking to do, BUT if you have a Monstera in a MASSIVE pot and you're not looking to get it a bigger one, then developing a secondary root system is a great way of allowing the roots to grow without having to have a massive pot. 

You may have to keep extending the moss pole though!

Final thoughts

Monstera aren’t true epiphytes, because they don’t spend their whole life cycle attached to another plant.

They don’t need to grow epiphytically at all – I poke all the aerial roots back into the soil – but neither do Hoyas. It’s only air plants that steadfastly refuse to adapt to houseplant life.

However, if you grow them big and healthy, they will want to climb. You’ll have long aerial roots trying to climb up your walls, or even up the poles of other plants, like this sneaky beast:

Hoya can be just as stubborn, and grow vines everywhere desperately looking for something to climb.

hoya parasitica black margin vines

However, if you don’t like the aerial roots, you can cut them off.

You will need to support your Monstera in some way, otherwise, you risk it becoming top-heavy and falling over or even snapping.

I have a complete guide to Monstera deliciosa here, if you’re a newbie. They’re awesome plants.

Caroline Cocker

Caroline is the founder and writer (and plant keeper) of Planet Houseplant

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