What is Ctenanthe?

Terrie Brockmann
Terrie Brockmann
Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Ctenanthe is a genus in the plant family Maranaceae, or the arrowroot family. Some people call plants in the Maranaceae family prayer plants because at night they fold their leaves together like praying hands. Only certain species and cultivars do this. Most of the 15 species of plants in the genus are native to parts of Costa Rica and Brazil, where they usually grow in the humid, tropical forests and surrounding thickets. Many gardeners value some of the evergreen, perennial plants for their striking foliage that bears interesting markings.

The Ctenanthe plant leaves may be ovate or obovate, lance-shaped or inverted lance-shaped, according to the species or cultivar. Ovate leaves are egg-shaped and taper toward the stem; obovate leaves taper toward the tip. Lance-shaped and inverted lance-shaped leaves are thinner and longer than ovate and obovate leaves. Almost all of the leaves have a leathery texture. The leaves generally range from yellow-green to dark green and are decorated with contrasting green, silverygray, or yellow marks.

Brazilian native the "never never plant," or C. oppenheimiana, usually is a fast-growing bushy shrub. In gardens and greenhouses, typically the plant grows to about 18 inches (about 46 cm) high with leaves up to 10 to 12 inches (about 25 to 30 cm) long. The leathery, dull green leaves usually have a zigzag design of silvery gray bars on top and a dull red coloring underneath. Most of the plants of the cultivar named tricolor have random splashes of yellow and creamy white or snowy white on the top of the leaves and more intense red on the underside. Generally, Ctenanthe plants have white flowers that bloom at irregular times throughout the year.

Another species that is generally popular with growers is C. burle-marsii. Most of the plants have long, wiry stems that are purple tinted with green and sport attractively patterned leaves. Usually the light green leaves are about 5.5 inches long (about 14 cm) and marked with contrasting dark green sickle shapes. The underside of the leaves often is deep purple. Typical of many Ctenanthe plants, the white flowers generally are inconspicuous and borne in spikes.

Most growers propagate Ctenanthe plants by sowing seeds or by rhizome division. Often people use them as large houseplants that may grow to heights of 18 to 24 inches (about 46 to 60 cm) and up to 14 inches (about 35 cm) wide. In gardens, growers usually plant them as border plants because of their short height and bushiness.

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