The genus Calathea—characterized by boldly marked, oblong leaves in a dazzling array of colors—includes some of the most beautiful tropical plants in the world. Due to the plants' eye-catching stripes and veining, they're often known by nicknames such as the zebra plant, peacock plant, or rattlesnake plant. Calatheas are also referred to as prayer plants, a common name that other species use as well.
Calatheas can be found outside in tropical environments, and they cannot tolerate cold temperatures. So elsewhere they are typically grown indoors year-round as houseplants. Moreover, calatheas can be hard to care for, as they have a reputation for being somewhat fussy about their growing conditions. But when those conditions are met, they grow rather quickly, often reaching their mature size in a year. They are best planted in the spring.
|Common Name||Calathea, prayer plant, zebra plant, rattlesnake plant, peacock plant|
|Plant Type||Herbaceous, perennial|
|Mature Size||1–2 ft. tall, 1–2 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Partial, shade|
|Soil Type||Loamy, moist, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral|
|Bloom Time||Spring, summer|
|Flower Color||Purple, yellow, white|
|Hardiness Zones||11–12 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Central America, South America|
Watch Now: How to Grow and Care for Calathea
Calathea care can be difficult only because the plants require specific conditions and aren't particularly hardy to neglect. But they thrive outdoors in their native tropical climate. And they'll thrive indoors if you can mimic that climate.
Calatheas have a reputation as greenhouse plants, and it's easy to see why. They're highly sensitive to chilly temperatures and grow best when kept in the warm, humid environment greenhouses often provide. But it's possible to mimic that in your home too. The good news is they don't take up much space, only growing to about 2 feet tall and wide on average, so they can fit in many different homes and gardens.
While it might seem counterintuitive for a tropical plant, calatheas prefer filtered light or shade. They're used to growing beneath a canopy of trees on the jungle floor and therefore have adapted to brief dapples of sunlight instead of constant harsh rays. So keep your calathea out of direct sun, as too much light can burn the leaves and cause their vibrant patterns to fade.
When growing them indoors, indirect sun from an east-, south-, or west-facing window should suffice. It is helpful to rotate your plant, so sun hits it evenly. You might notice the leaves of your calathea moving throughout the day, folding up at night and opening wider in the morning. This is so the plant can maximize sun absorbency.
Calatheas prefer a loamy or humusy soil that's rich in organic matter. A slightly acidic to neutral soil pH is best.
For potted plants, a peaty potting mixture that is lightweight and airy works well, as does any specialty mix geared toward African violets.
Water regularly to maintain consistently moist (but not soggy) soil. Calatheas like a lot of water, but they don't want to be waterlogged.
Temperature and Humidity
Calathea plants thrive when kept at temperatures ranging from 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. They can tolerate a drop down to 60 degrees Fahrenheit but no lower.
Also, calathea plants prefer humidity levels of 50% and higher. Indoors, you can raise the humidity level around your plant by placing a humidifier nearby. You also can place the plant's container on a tray filled with water and pebbles, ensuring that the bottom of the container isn't touching the water. Plus, terrariums can be a great option to create humid conditions; you'd just need to find one large enough to host a calathea's sprawling leaves.
For a luscious, full plant, treat your calathea once a month with a liquid balanced fertilizer at half strength throughout the spring, summer, and fall, following label instructions. Hold off on fertilizer in the winter months when the plant naturally grows less.
Types of Calathea
There are dozens of Calathea species, including:
- Calathea orbifolia: This species features silver-green stripes on its large leaves.
- Calathea makoyana: Commonly known as the peacock plant, this species features leaves of dark green, cream, purple, and pink hues with red stems.
- Calathea ornata: This species is referred to as the pinstripe plant due to its deep green leaves with pink stripes.
Calathea plants don’t require regular pruning. The only maintenance you'll have to do in this department is to trim off brown, wilted leaves as they naturally die off. And that's really just to keep the plant looking nice and tidy, as the leaves ultimately will fall off by themselves.
Propagating calatheas not only is an inexpensive way to get new plants, but it also will allow you to reproduce plants with especially beautiful coloring and patterns. Spring or summer is the best time to propagate calathea due to its vigorous growth during this period. The most successful way to propagate calathea is through root division, but it should only be done if the parent plant is healthy and at least 2 years old. Here's how:
- Water your plant the day before you plan to divide it, so the roots can take up sufficient moisture before they're disturbed.
- Gently dig up the plant, being careful not to damage its roots.
- Slowly tease apart the roots to divide the plant into two sections. A garden fork might be helpful to pull apart stubborn roots.
- Replant the new sections in their new growing sites at the same depth they were previously growing. Water to moisten the soil.
How to Grow Calathea From Seed
Most people opt for nursery plants when it comes to planting calatheas. Starting them from seeds has a variable success rate. But it’s worth a try if you’re looking to save some money, as seeds are relatively inexpensive. The best time to start seeds is in the early spring. Here’s how:
- Fill small containers or a seed tray with a seed-starting mix. Make sure any container you use has ample drainage holes.
- Moisten the seed-starting mix.
- Slightly press the seeds into the mix.
- Cover the container with clear plastic wrap to trap in humidity, and put the container in a warm spot with bright, indirect light.
- Continue to keep the soil lightly moist but never soggy, and you should see germination in two to four weeks.
Potting and Repotting Calathea
A container that's 8 to 10 inches across and deep should work well for a calathea plant. Make sure it has ample drainage holes. In addition, unglazed clay can be a good material to allow excess soil moisture to evaporate through its walls if you have a tendency to overwater.
It's best to stick with one calathea plant per pot, so the roots don't become overcrowded. Plan to repot every few years in a container that is 1 to 2 inches larger in diameter. Calathea plants that are root-bound can become weak and unhealthy, as they won't be able to efficiently take up moisture and nutrients.
Repotting is best done in spring or early summer during the plant's active growing season. Water your calathea well a day or two before repotting to lessen the stress on the plant. Gently ease the rootball out of the old pot, keeping the roots as intact as possible. And plant it at the same depth in the new pot, filling around it with fresh potting mix.
If your summer temperatures reach no lower than 60 degrees Fahrenheit at night, you can bring a calathea houseplant outside for the season. Your climate also must have moderate to high humidity.
But as soon as temperatures begin dipping into the 60s, it's time to bring your plant back inside. First, though, examine the leaves and container for any garden pests. They often can be knocked off with a spray of water from a hose, or you might have to use an insecticidal soap. Then, return your plant to its indoor location, and resume your methods to raise humidity as needed.
Because calathea plants prefer a humid environment, they are susceptible to fungus gnats (which thrive when there's moisture). They generally do not impact the plant's health and can be eradicated by using neem oil. Other common pests include aphids, mealybugs, spider mites, and scale. Many of these issues can be treated with several applications of horticultural oil or insecticidal soap.
How to Get Calathea to Bloom
Calathea species feature flowers typically of purple, white, or yellow that appear on spikes in the spring to late summer. The flowers have an asymmetrical tubular shape with three petals and sepals. And they feature a mild citrus-like fragrance. Plants don’t require any special care when they’re in bloom; just make sure they continue to receive proper water, humidity, and warmth.
It’s rare for calatheas to bloom indoors, as they’re picky about having their exact natural growing conditions to produce flowers. If you're hoping for flowers to accompany the plant's vibrant foliage, consider the Calathea crocata species. It will sometimes, but not always, produce blooms in optimal indoor conditions.
Common Problems With Calathea
When grown in the environment they like, calatheas have few issues. But when conditions are even slightly off, some problems can arise.
If you notice the edges of your calathea's leaves are browning or withering, that's a sure sign you need to up your watering cadence. If you feel dryness when you stick your finger an inch or two down into the soil, give your plant some water.
Leaves Turning Yellow
Calatheas are surprisingly picky when it comes to the type of water they receive. They are sensitive to several minerals typically found in most tap water, which can cause their leaves to yellow. To avoid this, water your calathea with filtered water, rainwater, or tap water that has sat out overnight so that any chlorine or fluoride present can evaporate.
What's the difference between calatheas and prayer plants?
While prayer plant is a common name for certain calatheas, not all Calathea species are prayer plants. The species many people think of when they hear prayer plant is Maranta leuconeura. Its leaves fold up at night (like praying hands) and open flat during the day.
Can calathea grow indoors?
Calatheas are commonly kept as houseplants, especially because they don't require very bright natural sunlight. However, it is important to maintain a warm and humid environment for them indoors.
Where should I place calathea in my house?
Calathea plants are best for any room where you have a somewhat bright window, and they should be placed out of the line of drafts and heating/cooling vents. A bedroom or living space might provide the right environment for a calathea plant, but a bathroom often offers a better humidity level.