This underdog is a tropical plant that has some tricks up its sleeve when it comes to surviving in the dog-eat-dog world of the Costa Rican rainforest.
This tiny plant goes by the latin name Monstera Deliciosa. Naturalists refer to it as an underdog because it has some unlikely adaptations that allow it to work smarter instead of harder and still come out on top.
Large trees are the favorite in the rainforest survival game. They take most of the light and water that fall on the forest.
Monstera is what is called an “understory plant”, or one that grows below the canopy. It is much harder for understory plants to get the light and water they need to survive, says Jessica Murray, Resident Naturalist at the University of Georgia Costa Rica.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Murray about the Monstera plant.
WHAT MAKES MONSTERA SPECIAL
Monstera’s stem is too weak to support its weight, so it uses the trees around it for support. But that’s not what makes Monstera so special.
Monstera’s secret weapon is its three separate life stages that each serve a different purpose.
“I think its crazy that the first two [stages] look nothing alike,” says Murray. “You would never know they were the same plant.”
In its first stage, the plant has small round leaves that cling to the side of a larger tree for protection until its stem gets stronger.
The leaves pull away and begin to develop small holes, or fenestrations, as it enters stage two and climbs higher up the tree. The holes are believed to increase water uptake for the plant and fend off predators, says Murray.
The holes make the leaves look like insects have eaten them. Since many rainforest plants will not produce insecticides until after they have been bitten, this keeps them safe from predators without using the energy to produce an insecticide.
The holes also allow more rainwater to fall through the leaves to the roots of the plant.
In the final stage, the leaves separate completely into fronds that look more like a palm tree. These are believed to reduce wind damage as the plant grows higher up on the tree, says Theodora Panayides, another naturalist at UGACR.
“I think it is very unique. I don’t know of anything in this forest like it.” said Panayides.
Monstera has one offensive strategy called calcium oxalate crystals. These crystals form tiny needles in the stems and leaves, cutting up the inside of anything that tries to eat them.
Only the ripe fruit is edible.
“That’s why its called Deliciosa, its delicious,” said Panayides.
Most underdogs have a defining moment, but Monstera has been preparing for this day since the very beginning.
When Monstera was just a seedling, it unearthed the most interesting adaptation yet. While most plants were busy growing towards the sunlight, Monstera was growing towards the darkness. Naturalists refer to this as negative phototropism.
This adaptation allows the young plant to counter intuitively grow into the shade of a tree that will one day support it. Murray says that these plants are ten times more sensitive to touch than humans, so as soon as one reaches a tree, it knows. Then Monstera returns to chasing the sunlight and climbs up the tree for the win.
Murray says everything in the forest
has to be the best at what it does to survive,
and Monstera Deliciosa is the perfect example of that.