What is Calathea?

Mary McMahon

Calathea is a genus of perennial plants native to the tropical regions of the Americas. They are cultivated outside their native range as ornamentals in the garden, houseplants, and for commercial purposes. The leaves of several species are used as food wrappers and in the construction of containers because they are large and very durable. Gardeners interested in cultivating a Calathea may be able to find a seedling at a nursery or can ask fellow gardeners about obtaining divisions of adult plants.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

The leaves are simple and variegated with a variety of colors, depending on the species. Some Calathea species produce extremely large leaves, while others are more modest in scale. The inflorescence can vary in color from bright red to blue. People growing members of this genus as houseplants are usually interested in the foliage, as the plants can bloom infrequently when they are grown indoors.

These plants are in the arrowroot family. Like some other members of this family, they are sometimes known by the common name of “prayer plant.” Other common names for Calathea species include zebra plant or simply calathea. These plants are adapted to the humid, warm, indirectly lit conditions of the tropical rainforest and these conditions must be replicated to grow them successfully.

People living in tropical regions can grow Calathea species right in their gardens. They should choose an area of the garden with rich, moist soil and indirect light. Outside the tropics, indoor or greenhouse cultivation is necessary, because the plants need consistently warm, but not hot, temperatures and high humidity. In the house, where humidity is often low, gardeners can use a humidity tray or frequently spray the plants to keep humidity levels high. If a number of tropical plants are being grown, keeping them in a room with a humidifier may be a more efficient way to keep them happy.

While Calathea likes to stay moist, these plants do not like growing in soggy, wet soil. The soil should be regularly checked for moisture and it is important to use room temperature water to avoid shocking the plant. If a plant appears to be withering or wilting, common reasons can include excessive heat or cold, being placed in direct light, not enough water, or too much water. While these plants can be finicky at first, once they are established in a space where they are comfortable, they tend to thrive.

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