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 a low-growing creeper that is a perfect fit for terrariums or bottle gardens. In USDA hardiness zone 11, nerve plant is sometimes grown as a creeping ground-cover in filtered sun locations. Fittonia typically grows to a height of 3 to 6 inches with a trailing spread of 12 to 18 inches. Although the plant rarely flowers when grown as an indoor houseplant, it does occasionally bloom with insignificant reddish or yellowish-white spikes.
As beautiful as it is, fittonia is somewhat temperamental and tricky to grow as a houseplant. It requires 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.
- Botanical name: Fittonia spp; named for its discoverers, botanists Elizabeth and Sarah May Fitton
- Common names: Nerve plant, mosaic plant, painted net leaf
- Plant type: Evergreen herbaceous perennial
- Mature size: 3 to 6 inches in height, with a spread of 12 to 18 inches
- Sun exposure: Filtered sun or part shade
- Soil type: Moist but well-draining soil
- Soil pH: 3.0 to 5.0; prefers slightly acidic soil, but will tolerate alkaline soils
- Bloom time: Sporadically; usually July to August
- Flower color: Varies depending on species; usually yellowish-white or reddish; flowers are insignificant
- Hardiness zones: 11; Grown as a houseplant in all climates
- Native area: Tropical rainforests of South America, principally Peru
How to Grow Nerve Plant
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.
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.
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.
Keeping the plant appropriately moist can be a challenge. Fittonia is prone to collapse if it's allowed to dry out. Although it will recover quickly if thoroughly watered, repeated fainting spells will eventually take their toll on the plant. At the other extreme, fittonia plants that are allowed to stagnate in water will develop yellowed, limp leaves.
Temperature and Humidity
Nerve plant thrives at temperatures around 70 degrees F. but will tolerate a range from the low 60s to low 80s. These plants prefer humid conditions similar to that found in rainforests. Regular misting will keep the plants from drying out. In arid climates or during the dry months of winter, using a room humidifier may be helpful. Terrariums or bottle gardens are naturally moist environments well suited to nerve plant.
During its growing season, nerve plants should be fed weekly with a weak dose of liquid fertilizer formulated for tropical plants. A 5-5-5 NPK fertilizer diluted to half strength is a good formulation.
Potting and Repotting
Any conventional potting soil mix and standard houseplant pot with bottom drainage holes will work for fittonia.
Repot nerve plants annually in spring or early summer, around the same time you repot the rest of your tropical houseplants. Always use fresh potting soil when you repot to prevent soil compaction and waterlogging.
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 2 to 3 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.
Nerve plants grow quickly in the right conditions, and if the stems grow leggy, pinching off the tips will keep the growth full and bushy. Because the flowers are insignificant and boring, pinching off the buds will also help keep the foliage full.
Varieties to Grow
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.
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 include fungus gnats, mealy bugs, or aphids. Infestations should be treated immediately, and keep affected plants isolated to prevent the bugs from spreading to other indoor plants.