Normally grown as a houseplant, nerve plant (Fittonia spp.) is a spreading evergreen with delicately veined, deep-green leaves. Although the most popular vein color is silvery white, you can also readily find varieties with veins in pink, white, and green. Nerve plant is available as a houseplant or a low-growing creeper that is a perfect fit for terrariums or bottle gardens.
As beautiful as it is, fittonia is somewhat temperamental and tricky to grow as a houseplant. They require very high, constant humidity, such as found in a terrarium and cannot tolerate stagnant conditions. Nerve plant is also sensitive to strong, direct sunlight and will quickly suffer from leaf burn.
- Scientific name: Fittonia spp.
- Common names: Nerve plant, mosaic plant, painted net leaf.
- USDA hardiness zones: Zone 11; normally grown as a houseplant.
- Light requirements: Tolerates bright light to shade, but does best in bright, indirect light.
- Soil requirements: Moist but well-draining.
- Feeding requirements: Prefers light feeding with a fertilizer formulated for tropical plants.
Fittonia typically grows to a height of 3 to 6 inches with a trailing spread of 12 to 18 inches. The oval-shaped leaves are typically a lush olive green with a fine network of contrasting, colorful veins. Different species within the genus produce different vein colors and patterns.
Although the plant rarely flowers when grown as an indoor houseplant, it does occasionally bloom with insignificant reddish or white spikes.
Origin and History
Native to Peru and other South American countries, Fittonia is named for its discoverers, botanists Elizabeth and Sarah May Fitton.
This plant does well in indoor hanging baskets or terrariums. In the right climate (USDA hardiness zone 11), it can also serve as an outdoor groundcover.
Preferred Growing Conditions
As a tropical plant that naturally grows in the humid bright shade of tropical forests, this plant prefers similar conditions when grown as a houseplant. It dislikes full sunlight, preferring bright, indirect sun, such as that offered by north-facing windows. It will also thrive under fluorescent lights.
Fittonia grows well in standard potting soil with a peat-moss base. The soil should retain some moisture but should also drain well. The plant needs to be kept constantly moist with a high level of ambient humidity provided by frequent misting or by growing it in a tray filled with pebbles and water.
It thrives at temperatures around 70 F. but will tolerate a range from the low 60s to low 80s. During its growing season, nerve plants should be fed weekly with a weak dose of liquid fertilizer formulated for tropical plants.
Planting and Care
Any conventional potting soil mix and standard houseplant pot with bottom drainage holes will work for fittonia. Keeping the plant appropriately moist can be a challenge. Fittonia is prone to collapse if it's allowed to dry out, and although it will recover quickly if thoroughly watered, repeated fainting spells will eventually take their toll on the plant. On the other hand, fittonia plants that are allowed to stagnate in water will develop yellowed, limp leaves.
Ideally, most growers find it's easiest to grow these lovely but temperamental plants in terrariums or covered gardens where they can get the high humidity and diffuse light they love so much.
Repot nerve plants annually in spring or early summer, around the same time you repot the rest of your tropical houseplants. A healthy fittonia will quickly assume a sprawling growth habit, so if you have a large plant that you want to keep contained in a dish garden or terrarium, take leaf tip shoots for propagation, then root prune the parent plant and place it back into the same container with fresh soil.
Always use fresh potting soil when you repot the plant to prevent soil compaction and waterlogging. If you don't want to repot into the same container, you must step them up into the next size pot.
Fittonia belongs to the Acanthus family. The various species are native to South America, but growers have cultivated a large number of compact forms with striking vein colors and contrasts. There are two main species of Fittonia that form the basis for most houseplant cultivars:
- F. gigantea, which can reach 24 inches and has purple stems with dark green leaves and crimson veins
- F. verschaffeltti is a creeper that does best in dishes or hanging baskets. This is the "typical" fittonia with several varieties, including 'Argyroneura' (silver-white veins) and 'Pearcey' (reddish veins). The 'Minima' and 'Argyroneura' varieties are well suited to terrarium culture.
Fittonia propagates readily from leaf-tip cuttings. Take the leaf-tip cuttings in late spring or early summer, at the same time you repot the plant. Make sure to include at least two growing nodes on the cutting to obtain the best results. Once you've potted up the cutting in a peat-based soil mix, you can expect roots to sprout within two to three weeks.
Use of a rooting hormone is not usually necessary, but if your conditions are less than ideal (too dry or too cool), rooting hormone might increase your chances of success.
Common Pests and Diseases
Many of the problems associated with nerve plant are the same ones that can affect other tropical houseplants.
- Yellow leaves are the result of too much water. Use a pot with drainage holes to prevent soggy soil.
- Leaf drop is usually the result of cold temperatures or drafts. Try to mimic the tropical conditions where this species naturally grows.
- Dry, shriveled leaves usually indicate that the plants are not receiving enough humidity, or are receiving too much direct sun. Use a room humidifier in winter when humidity levels can drop significantly. Keep your nerve plant out of direct sunlight.
- Insect problems are due to fungus gnats, mealy bugs, or aphids. Infestations should be treated immediately, and affected plants isolated to prevent the bugs from spreading to other indoor plants.