Ambling along the MAMU skywalk I was surprised to see a Monstera growing wild. It had to be a Monstera – nothing else has a flower, or fruit, or leaves, quite like that – but it wasn’t the Monstera deliciosa I grew and wrote about a few years ago, so what was it?
MAMU’s own Flora and Fauna Guide called it a ‘Native Monstera’ (that sounded right) and gave ‘Epipremnum aureum‘ as the botanical name, which surprised me because any two plants as similar as these are usually in the same genus.
When I got home I looked further into it and found a tangled mess of names – the sort of thing I talked about in Common names and Latin names six months ago and Butterfly vines and Swallowtail butterflies a year before that. It’s obviously a kind of puzzle I enjoy, and I think I have now sorted out the three species and many names involved here. Let’s see.
My three species are all vines within the Arum Lily family, Araceae, and, within that, in the subfamily Monsteroideae and tribe Monstereae. (That link is to Wikipedia and will give you as much detail as you want but for now it’s enough to know that they are all closely related.)
This is where we began: a popular ornamental vine with edible fruit. Its only common name (in Australia, anyway) is its botanical name, ‘Monstera’ or ‘Monstera deliciosa’, so its identity is really clear. As Wikipedia says, it is native to Mexico and Panama but has been introduced to many other countries.
My preferred common name for the plant I saw at MAMU is theirs, ‘Native Monstera’, since anyone who knows the cultivated Monstera deliciosa will immediately see the similarities.
This plant’s native range extends from Northern Australia through South-east Asia into southern China, Taiwan and Japan, and East into Melanesia. Its entry on Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants, an excellent site by CSIRO, mentions medicinal uses in Singapore but I have only come across one site which says that the fruit is edible; it was a commercial nursery, and I’m not sure that I would trust it with my life.
The Native Monstera and its relatives have been moved repeatedly from one genus to another within Monstereae by botanists (the entry on Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants lists them all). Pothos is one we will meet again, and Epipremnum is the current name. The second part of the name has usually been pinnatum and it’s sensible: it means ‘divided like a feather’ and refers to the leaves.
So our Native Monstera is Epipremnum pinnatum. MAMU, therefore, has the correct genus but wrong species name.
Other common names?
iNaturalist uses ‘Golden Pothos Vine’ as its common name for Epipremnum pinnatum but I think it is a poor choice – especially since it uses ‘Golden Pothos’ (without the ‘Vine’) for Epipremnum aureum. There are other common names overseas but not, apparently, in Australia.
So what is ‘Golden Pothos’? Pothos was one of the genus names in Monstereae before Epipremnum was adopted, and aureum is simply ‘golden’. ‘Golden Pothos’ is therefore a direct translation of a superseded Latin name for one particular relative of our monsteras, and its current botanical name should be Epipremnum aureum.
As we very soon see when searching for either the common name (image search) or the botanical name (image search), the vine is a creeper with variegated leaves. It’s also very familiar here in NQ, since it is commonly grown in our gardens where it climbs trees and produces leaves as big as the monsteras (but not usually divided and never holey). In temperate climates it is usually grown in pots indoors and the leaves don’t reach their full potential.
Wikipedia describes Epipremnum aureum very fully, identifying it as native to French Polynesia and offering a long list of common names including ‘golden pothos, Ceylon creeper, hunter’s robe, ivy arum, … Solomon Islands ivy, marble queen, taro vine and devil’s ivy.’
My own first thought, when I realised that I actually knew ‘Golden Pothos’ really well, was that it couldn’t be related to the monsteras because it didn’t have similar flowers or fruit. My second thought was that I had never even seen its flowers.
Had I been unobservant? Unlucky?
Neither, according to Wikipedia: “It rarely flowers without artificial hormone supplements; the last known spontaneous flowering was reported in 1964 … Regardless of where this “shy-flowering” plant is grown or what the conditions are like, it will not flower due to a genetic impairment.”
Instead, it spreads vegetatively – frequently with human assistance via cuttings, since it is such a popular houseplant, being attractive and very tough. (It acquired the name ‘Devil’s Ivy’, in fact, because it is nearly impossible to kill.) Then, of course, indoor plants are thrown out and make themselves at home on the rubbish heap, climb the nearest tree, etc.
On the rare occasions the vine does produce a flower or fruit, they are indeed very similar to those of the Native Monstera, e.g. fruit on wikipedia.
I’m going to quote Wikipedia’s History and etymology section in full, since it explains MAMU’s wrong botanical name, and iNaturalist’s poorly chosen common name, for our Native Monstera.
This species [Golden Pothos] has been assigned to a number of genera. In 1880 when it was first described, it was named Pothos aureus, which is in part why it is often commonly referred to as a “pothos”. After a flower was observed in 1962, it was given the new name of Raphidophora aurea. However, after closer examination of the flower, researchers noticed its heightened similarity to Epipremnum pinnatum and synonymised it with that species. Only after closer observation to the entirety of the plant, including the leaves and growing patterns, did researchers again separate it from E. pinnatum, and classify it as E. aureum.
So there we are.
Incidentally, the Tropical Rainforest Plants site seems to be a little out of date on this vine, listing it as Epipremnum pinnatum cv. Aureum. The ‘cv’ stands for ‘cultivated variety’ and is used for plants which are recognisably different from others of the same species (more on Wikipedia).