The genus calathea includes some of the most beautiful tropical plants in the world, characterized by boldly marked, oblong leaves in a dazzling array of colors. Due to the plant's eye-catching stripes and veining, they're often known by nicknames such as the zebra plant, peacock plant, or rattlesnake plant. Native to Brazil and grown indoors year-round, calathea are true tropicals in every sense of the word, gaining a reputation for being somewhat fussy about their grow conditions. However, once those conditions are maintained, these tropicals will thrive and grow rather quickly, often reaching a mature size of one to two feet tall in a year. In addition to being popular house plants, calathea can also be found planted ornamentally outdoors in tropical environments like Hawaii or southern Florida.
|Common name||Zebra plant, rattlesnake plant, peacock plant|
|Plant type||Herbaceous perennial|
|Mature size||6 in.–3 ft. tall, 6 in.–2 ft. wide|
|Sun exposure||Partial sunlight, full shade|
|Soil type||Moist but well-drained|
|Flower color||Yellow, purple, white|
|Hardiness zones||11, 12 (USDA)|
|Native area||South America|
Calathea 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. The good news: You don't have to call a greenhouse or glass atrium home in order to care for one of these tropical beauties. As long as you take care to mimic the balmy temps, moisture-packed air, and shady environment calathea love, they can thrive in nearly any household.
While it may seem counterintuitive for a plant that is considered tropical, calathea plants actually prefer filtered, indirect light or shade. They're used to growing beneath a canopy of trees on the jungle floor and are therefore adapted to brief dapples of sunlight instead of constant harsh rays. In fact, it's best to keep your calathea plants out of direct sunlight, as too much light can burn the leaves and cause their vibrant patterns to fade. You may also notice the leaves of your calathea move throughout the day, often folding upwards at night and opening wider in the morning. These movements are known as nyctinasty and are thought to follow the sun's movement in the sky in an attempt to maximize light absorbancy in the wild.
Moisture is of utmost importance to a calathea plant, so opt for a soil blend that retains water well. A peaty potting mixture that is lightweight and airy works best, as does any specialty mix geared towards African violets. Be sure to plant your calathea in a pot with drainage holes at its base; although it likes moist soil, it is still susceptible to root rot if it becomes waterlogged. Additionally, calathea plants prefer slightly acidic soil, thriving best in an environment with a pH of around 6.5.
The calathea is one thirsty plant and does best when watered regularly in order to maintain a consistently moist (but not soggy) soil. Depending on your home environment, this could mean watering your calathea plant every few days, once a week or once every other week—the most important rule of thumb is to never let the soil dry out. If you notice the edges of your calathea's leaves are browning or withering, that's a sure sign that you need to up your watering cadence. Calathea are also surprisingly picky when it comes to the type of water they receive and are known to be sensitive to several minerals typically found in most tap waters, which can cause their leaves to yellow. To avoid this, water your calathea with filtered water, rainwater, or allow your tap water to sit out overnight so that any chlorine or fluoride present can evaporate.
Temperature and Humidity
Balmy temperatures are your best bet when it comes to keeping your calathea happy. Choose a spot in your home that's consistently toasty—calathea thrive when kept at temperatures ranging from 70 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, but can tolerate a drop down to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (but no lower). Keep your calathea away from any cold drafts and up the surrounding humidity as much as you can, either by selecting a spot in your home that's naturally more humid (like a bathroom or kitchen) or by placing a humidifier nearby. Terrariums are also a great option given their naturally humid conditions—you'll just need to find one large enough to host calathea's sprawling leaves.
For the best results (and a luscious, full plant), treat your calathea once a month with a liquid fertilizer at half-strength throughout the spring, summer, and fall, tapering off in the winter months when it naturally grows less.
There are over 300 species of calathea found in nature, many boasting different eye-catching leaf patterns, coloring, and veining, along with some exotic tropical blooms. The most common varietals typically seen as houseplants include:
- Calathea makoyana: Also known as a peacock plant, C. makoyana features purplish coloring on the undersides of its leaves, with white and green on top.
- Calathea zebrina: The so-called zebra plant has green, stripe-like markings on the tops of its leaves, with rich purple undersides.
- Calathea crocata: This species of calathea has the plainest leaves of the bunch, but boasts beautiful displays of upright orange-red flowers, earning it the nickname "eternal flame."
- Calathea ornata: Distinguished by its pretty pink and white striped leaves, calathea ornata also goes by the common name femme fatale. It's considered one of the more difficult calathea to grow.