Named for Bartolomeo Maranta, an Italian physician and botanist of the sixteenth century, the Maranta genus includes a few dozen low-growing plants native to the American tropics. The plant gets its common name from the fact that its leaves stay flat during the day, then fold up like prayer hands at night. The Maranta leuconeura species has some of the most strikingly beautiful, decorative leaves in the plant kingdom. The popular tricolor variety has deep green, velvety leaves with yellow splotches down the midrib and arching red veins traveling to the leaf margins. A well-grown Maranta should have full, six-inch-long leaves rising from a short center stem and draping down. They are fairly common as houseplants, but not necessarily easy to keep growing over the long-term.
- Botanical Name: Maranta leuconeura
- Common Name: Maranta or prayer plant
- Plant Type: Evergreen perennial
- Mature Size: 12 inches tall with leaves that are six inches long
- Sun Exposure: Bright, indirect sunlight
- Soil Type: Rich, well-draining
- Soil pH: Acidic
- Bloom Time: Spring
- Flower Color: White
- Hardiness Zones: 11, 12
- Native Area: Central and South America, West Indies
How to Grow Prayer Plants
Maranta are all fairly low-growing, spreading plants with none reaching over about eight inches tall, making them excellent for grouped displays of low plants on a windowsill. They thrive best when provided with greenhouse-like conditions: warm, moist, gentle airflow, and plenty of fertilizer. Plants that are kept too cool or too dry are likely to lose their leaves or suffer from fungal infections that will cause the plant to die from root rot or collapse. Plants that are exposed to too much sun are likely to become washed out and develop brown blotches on their leaves.
You can hang or set your prayer plant near a window where it will get indirect sunlight. Never set your plant in direct sunlight as the sun will scorch the plant’s leaves, or leaves will develop blotches or patches and fade in color intensity. The plant is generally tolerant of lower light areas. In the winter, when the plants go into dormancy (and sometimes die back completely), give them bright light to maintain growth.
This plant prefers acidic soil. Use a peat-based potting mix with a pH of 5.5 to 6.0 or mix two parts sphagnum peat moss, one part loamy soil, and one part perlite or coarse sand together. It is best to get only clean, pre-packaged materials that have been commercially processed and are free of insects and weed seeds.
You can also use a general purpose houseplant potting soil, as long as it is well-draining. If you are using soil that does not drain well, add perlite or coarse sand to the mixture. To improve drainage, add rocks or gravel to the bottom of your pot and be sure that the pot has a drainage hole.
During the growing season, water frequently and never allow the potting soil to dry out. Water the prayer plant when the top of the potting soil is just starting to get dry. These plants are very susceptible to drought; however, to avoid fungal problems, try not to let water sit directly on the leaves or let the plant get soggy. Not enough water and overwatering can cause the leaves to turn yellow and drop from the plant. When watering, use water that is at least at room temperature if not slightly warm. In the winter months, reduce watering.
Temperature and Humidity
A prayer plant prefers normal household temperatures between 60 and 80 F. Lower temperatures can damage the leaves. Prayer plants prefer a very humid environment and the humidity in homes is often too low. Increase the humidity by grouping plants together, or put a small humidifier or bowl of water near the plant, or fill a tray with small stones and water just to the level of the stones and place the pot on top of the stones. You can also mist the leaves with room temperature or warm water.
Fertilize your prayer plant every two weeks from early spring through fall. Dilute a balanced, water-soluble houseplant fertilizer (10-10-10) to half strength. If you use too little fertilizer, your plant will grow slowly or hardly at all. Too much fertilizer can burn the roots—leaves will start to brown, and you can even kill the plant. Cut fertilizer back to once a month or so in the winter.
Potting and Repotting
You should not need to repot your prayer plant often. But, if it becomes root-bound or pot-bound, it will grow much slower. If you repot, choose a pot that is only one to two inches wider than the existing pot. During repotting, gently remove the plant from its old container, shake roots clean, and place into a new container with fresh potting soil. Water well. The best time to repot is in the spring before the growing season starts.
Propagating Prayer Plants
Propagating prayer plants is surprisingly easy. Some Maranta species can be propagated by stem cuttings or rhizome division. The most common (and easiest) way to propagate this plant is by division at repotting.
- Division: When repotting, you can divide your prayer plant into several smaller plants by gently shaking the soil off the roots and working them apart. Each new plant should have a good mass of roots and several stems. Pot these new smaller plants up separately in small, shallow pots. Keep new divisions very warm and moist during the first few weeks until new growth emerges.
- Cutting: Make a stem cutting below a leaf node. Dip the cutting in a rooting hormone and place it in a glass of water, making sure to change the water every two days or so. Once roots form, place the cutting directly into potting soil. Keep the soil moist and mist the plant from time to time.
Varieties of Prayer Plants
There are many varieties of Maranta, but the most popular by far is the tricolor variation that pops up in garden centers. Alternatively, Maranta and Calathea plants are so closely associated with one another that it's not uncommon for them to be mislabeled. Within the Maranta genus, a few species are seen more commonly:
- M. tricolor: This is the most common prayer plant variety. It may be also be called the herringbone plant.
- M. leuconeura kerchoveana: This is a variation with cream leaves and darker green splotches. It does not have red veins.
- M. leuconeura massangeana: This variety has a darker leaf background with silvery leaf blotches along the midrib and white leaf veins. It is easily confused with the Calathea species.