How to Grow and Care for Rattlesnake Plants

rattlesnake plant

The Spruce / Krystal Slagle

In This Article

Rattlesnake plants (Calathea lancifolia) are tricky houseplants to nurture, but, if you give them the care they need, you will be rewarded with an impressive display from their foliage. This calathea species is native to the rainforests of Brazil and gets its common name from the distinctive decorative markings that are displayed on its leaves.

The plant can grow up to 30 inches tall, and the large leaves have a variegated pattern with various shades of greens and a wavy pattern along their edges. Even the undersides of the foliage are eye-catching with their beautiful purplish-red tones.

In its native region, the rattlesnake plant produces small yellow flowers in the late spring. As a houseplant, you will be growing this plant for its impressively ornamental, long, and elegant foliage as it rarely blooms indoors. It grows at a moderate rate indoors but will slow or stop growing if the plant is put in unfavorable conditions.

Common Name Rattlesnake plant, rattlesnake prayer plant
Botanical Name Calathea lancifolia
Family Marantaceae
Plant Type Perennial, evergreen
Mature Size Up to 30 in. tall
Sun Exposure Partial shade
Soil Type Well-drained, moist
Soil pH Acid, neutral
Bloom Time Late spring
Flower Color Yellow
Hardiness Zones 11-12 (USDA)
Native Area Brazil

Rattlesnake Plant Care

Rattlesnake plants are not generally considered the best option for a beginner's houseplant collection. They have very particular requirements in terms of heat, light, and moisture. However, it can be worth the extra effort when you see the beautiful ornamental leaves the plant produces.

Because this plant has large leaves, you may be tempted to use leaf shine to give the foliage an extra boost. This can cause browning of the tips of the leaves, so you should stick with a simple damp cloth to remove any dust or debris instead.

Although this plant is often seen growing in shaded outdoor landscapes in Hawaii and some southern parts of California and Florida, it is most commonly kept as a houseplant or in greenhouses or terrariums. This tropical native needs lots of heat and humidity to thrive.

closeup of rattlesnake

The Spruce / Krystal Slagle

overhead view of rattlesnake plant

The Spruce / Krystal Slagle

Light

Filtered light is the best option. If you want to have your rattlesnake plant in a window, select one that doesn't have intense afternoon sun streaming through it, or diffuse the light with drapes. A bright spot in a well-lit room away from the direct light in a window can work well, too.

Soil

When it comes to soil, it needs to be one that drains well. Although these plants can't handle standing water, they do still like to be kept moist. A light sandy soil or a potting mix of two parts peat moss and one part perlite could work well. They also respond well to slightly acidic or neutral pH levels, but alkaline soils should be avoided.

Water

Over the summer period, when your rattlesnake plant experiences the most growth, it will need to be watered frequently to keep the soil or potting mix moist. During the winter season, allow the top layer of soil to dry out before watering again.

Rattlesnake plants don't tolerate waterlogged conditions, though, and, if the leaves start to turn yellow, this could be a sign that you are overwatering. Conversely, the leaves can begin to curl unattractively when they don't receive enough water.

Frequent small waterings are required rather than deep irrigation. Water the plant until it just starts to slightly trickle out of drainage holes (do not water so much that it is quickly streaming out of the bottom). Do not let the plant sit in the excess water. Pour the excess water out and do not pour it back into the plant.

Temperature and Humidity

Where you situate your rattlesnake plant can make a huge difference in terms of its growth and health. Ideal temperatures for this plant are around 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If it is exposed to prolonged temperatures below this, the leaves can wilt and brown, and it will eventually die off.

Cold, dry air, poor ventilation, drafts, and sudden changes in temperatures are all very harmful. Keep your rattlesnake plant away from air conditioning units and heating systems to avoid exposing it to undesired dry air.

To create the humid environment the plant favors, stand your potted plant on a tray with pebbles. The water that drains through the pot will remain there and help create the moist conditions that they like. You can also regularly mist your plant or bring them into the bathroom whenever you are showering. Of course, a humidifier is a good investment if you are an avid collector of tropical houseplants.

Fertilizer

Your rattlesnake plant will appreciate being fed every month during the spring and summer growing season. Using a balanced liquid fertilizer encourages impressive and healthy foliage development. A weak dose of a specialized foliage variety with a decent amount of nitrogen works well for plants with lots of leaves.

Propagating Rattlesnake Plants

These plants are easy to propagate by division once they are well established, but propagating by seed is extremely difficult. You can undertake the process of dividing in the spring when you are planning to repot the plant. Take these steps to propagate:

  1. Water your plant the day before you plan to repot and propagate. This will lessen the amount of stress the plant will feel.
  2. Choose a pot that's large enough for the new root ball you will create when dividing the plant. A plastic, metal, or glazed ceramic pot with drainage holes is best since your rattlesnake plant requires somewhat of a moist environment. Add a few small stones at the bottom of the pot so you don't lose soil from the drainage hole and to promote better drainage.
  3. Fill the pot about 1/3 of the way with peat moss with some perlite mixed in.
  4. Take the existing pot with the plant in it and put it on its side so you can easily slide the root ball out of the container.
  5. Gently brush soil from roots and begin to carefully tease the roots apart with your fingers. Slowly separate the roots where they seem to naturally want to come apart, but don't force any roots to break apart. Trim off any damaged or diseased parts of the root with a sterile, sharp gardening scissor.
  6. Place the divided root ball into its new container and backfill with soil, using some of the soil from the original soil to reduce the plant's stress.
  7. Water the newly potted plant until water drains from the bottom of the container.
  8. Though optional, you can mimic a greenhouse effect by placing a clear plastic bag loosely over the plant and container until you see that it's growing. Then you can remove the plastic and care for it normally.

Common Pests

The thick leaves of your rattlesnake plant may entice pests. Watch for the usual suspects, including aphids, mealybugs, and spider mites. Treat the problem quickly with a gentle insecticidal soap, neem oil, or simply wash the insects off the leaves with a soft cloth dipped in soapy water.

Common Problems With Rattlesnake Plants

The leaves and stems of your rattlesnake plant will let you know if there's a problem. Most of the time it's due to a watering issue. But here are common issues that you can try to amend for a healthier plant.

Leaf Color or Pattern Fading

A key consideration for any calathea plant is proper lighting, and the rattlesnake is no exception. If it gets too much direct sunlight or not enough light, the vibrant spotted markings will begin to fade.

Limp or Rotting Stems

There are two possibilities: overwatering or drafts. Problematic stems are tough to fix. Giving your plant too much water when the temperature drops can cause the stems to become limp, which can kill the plant. But you can try moving the plant to a warmer space where there are no extreme temperature fluctuations to see how the plant fares.

Leaf Edges Turning Brown

This signals that the plant needs more humidity in its environment. In addition to brown leaf tips, overly dry air can result in the foliage curling up. Take steps to add humidity to the area where the plant lives.

FAQ
  • What helps a rattlesnake plant thrive?

    Give this plant the humidity, warmth, and filtered sunlight it requires and the bold markings on the rattlesnake plants foliage are sure to impress any visitors. It is a worthy addition to any tropical houseplant collection and looks great as a stand-alone specimen too.

  • Can a rattlesnake plant be pruned?

    All you need to do is use a sterilized, sharp cutting tool to snip off an unwanted leaf near the stem and discard.

  • Why do rattlesnake plants close up at night?

    The leaves of some rattlesnake houseplants tend to point upward at night and drop back down during daylight, which is why they are sometimes called rattlesnake prayer plants. This not-so-subtle movement is completely normal for this type of plant as a way to manage its own light and water resources.

  • Are rattlesnake plants and prayer plants the same?

    Rattlesnake plants (Calathea) differ from prayer plants (Maranta) though they are both part of the same Marantaceae family and have brightly patterned leaves with observable movement at night. Rattlesnake plants grow upright while prayer plants can dangle from a hanging pot, and their leaves are shaped differently.