The Essential Guide to Calathea - Origins and Care

Calathea is a tropical plant genus revered for its vibrant and often colourful foliage. These plants can be a little tricky to look after, but when kept out of direct sunlight and in a suitably humid environment, they will thrive and look amazing. Here's our full, comprehensive guide!

 

Calathea is a genus of plants made up of more than 300 species, a few dozen of which have been cultivated into popular houseplants. The Calathea genus is a part of the Marantaceae family. These plants are native to South and Central America, Africa, and the West Indies. 

Some species boast brightly coloured flowers, but Calathea are most well known for their thick and intricately patterned foliage. Often, the undersides of the leaves are a striking purple colour. Their unique appearance makes them a beautiful houseplant.

The main point to remember about Calathea is that they need to stay out of harsh and direct sunlight, and they need to get enough humidity. Brightness is fine, but strong rays of light beating down on them will remove their gorgeous leaf markings. Sometimes, this will even cause leaf burn. Calathea needs to be kept in a spot where the light is not too harsh, and they can bask in plenty of humidity.

Sometimes Calathea are called prayer plants. This is due to their daily circadian rhythm process called nyctinasty. This means that they lower and open their leaves at dawn and raise and close them at dusk. The vertically closed leaves look a bit like hands clasped in prayer, hence the name “prayer plants”. The purpose of nyctinasty is unknown, but this fluid movement is one of the many interesting features Calathea boasts.

Calathea plants are often used to warmly decorate an office or any room of the home. They are not poisonous, which means they are cat, dog and child-friendly. They don’t need much light, and their medium size, tropical vibe and compact bushy shape make them an excellent addition to any room. 

 

 

Origin: The History and Geography of Calathea

Calathea plants are native to tropical rainforests in South and Central America and the West Indies. They are famous for their wide, green, colourful leaves. These big leaves help them thrive in low light areas. Low light plants have broad leaves to absorb and use as much light as they can get. In nature, Calathea are found in crevices and at the base of trees. 

In the modern Western world, Calathea are usually cultivated for decorative purposes. However, they grow much bigger in the rainforest than the modestly sized Calathea we are familiar with. Tribes in areas where Calathea are native often use the large, tough leaves for practical purposes.

In the Benevides region of Pará, Brazil, Calathea leaves are often used to wrap fish for transport. These leaves, often more than a metre long, have also been used to make roofing for village houses. Some tribes also believe Calathea plants, particularly their roots, have valuable medicinal properties.

Around the world, the leaves are also used to make containers for food, such as rice. Villagers in Thailand create beautiful and practical decorative rice containers from Calathea leaves and sell them to both locals and tourists. 

While many species of Calathea are thriving due to their cultivation houseplants, several species of Calathea face extinction. Due to habitat destruction in South and Central America, several species are being gradually destroyed.

 

 

Looking After Your Calathea

It’s no secret that Calathea aren’t the hardiest houseplant. Choose a low-light location for your Calathea, to avoid damage that can be caused by harsh sunlight. Take steps to make sure your Calathea gets enough humidity. Make sure to water your Calathea with purified water or tap water that has been left out overnight. Keep the soil moist, but not damp - rainwater is the best method for watering. Looking after Calathea can be hard work. However, they are so pretty that you will surely find they are worth the effort.

 

Where to put a Calathea

Calathea are low light plants. Like most low light plants, they have big, wide leaves to soak up as much light as possible. In nature, low light plants are found in the shade such as at the base of trees. In an indoor space, they will be overwhelmed next to a big window with lots of sunlight. This will make the leaves lose their gorgeous markings, or even cause leaf burn.

Instead, opt for a shady spot. All plants need light, so not somewhere dark, but a northern or eastern facing window would be the perfect location. A couple of feet back from a western window or three or four feet back from a south-facing window would also be a good choice. Keeping your Calathea too close to a window can create a “fishbowl” effect which causes the light to be too intense. Under no circumstances should you put them anywhere near an AC vent, as this will be far too dry for these humidity loving plants.

 

 

How to water a Calathea

Calathea are very picky about the water you give them. While most houseplants don’t mind tap water, Calathea struggles to handle the fluoride, chlorine, salts and other chemicals that are present. 

Water that is not distilled or pure can turn the Calathea’s leaves yellow and brown. This is because they have not developed ways to process the chemicals in tap water, so these impurities can burn the leaves. They do much better with distilled water paired with a fertiliser or rainwater. If these are not available, you can let some tap water sit out for 12-24 hours and the chlorine should dissipate.

Definitely make sure you never overwater your Calathea. These plants enjoy being in a soil which is moist, but not wet. Make sure they don’t end up sitting in standing water, as this can cause root rot. Just keep the soil gently moist. You can check the soil’s moisture by putting your finger an inch deep into it and seeing if it feels dry. If it does, water it, and ensure any excess water is drained.

 

Keeping it humid

An important aspect of keeping a Calathea happy is humidity. Most require a humidity level of 50 percent or more, and some more picky species, such as the eternal flame, require humidity of around 60 percent.

Outside of the countries where Calathea are found in the wild, it can be difficult to get to the humidity levels your Calathea craves. Luckily, there are some useful strategies to keep them as moist as possible:

 

  • Keep your Calathea in the bathroom. The steam from the shower is an easy way to make sure your Calathea is getting the humidity it needs. If you want your plant to decorate a different area, you can just bring it in with you when you’re having a hot shower so it can soak up some steam.
  • Try a pebble tray. Place your Calathea’s pot into a tray of pebbles or stones. Water the pebbles directly. When the stones are covered in water, it will evaporate and the warm steam will travel into the pot, up to the Calathea’s roots.
  • Use a humidifier. A humidifier will allow for the constant high humidity that the Calathea needs. This is healthy for the humans of the house too, particularly during the dry winter months.
  • Group them together. Putting Calathea near each other creates a greenhouse effect. This microclimate between the plants provides them with some extra natural humidity.
  • Mist them. While higher overall humidity is preferred, misting can be a great quick fix if the humidity situation is getting dire. It is also a great deterrent for spidermites! Using a misting bottle, spray with tepid or lukewarm water from the bottom up. Take care not to mist directly onto the leaves. Remember that misting only increases ambient humidity for around 30 minutes, so a more permanent solution is preferred.

 

 

How to fertilise a Calathea

Calathea do not require much fertilisation. Try fertilising with a diluted, normal houseplant fertiliser once a month. If you notice the plant is going through a period of fast growth, you can increase the frequency a little. If you have a flowering variety, it is also important to make sure they get enough fertiliser during the flowering season.

If your plant’s leaves go yellow, droop, or wilt, these can be signs that the plant is being fertilised too often. If this is the case, you should stop fertilising in winter and reduce to spring, summer and fall.

 

Soil and potting for Calathea

Any high-quality houseplant soil should work fine. Make sure to go for an option that will hold enough moisture, such as something peat-based. A DIY blend could be a mix of 60 percent potting soil, 20 percent bark, 10 percent charcoal, and 10 percent perlite.

You can plant the Calathea in terra cotta, stoneware, or plastic pots. Which is better is debatable, but either is likely to be fine. When deciding which material to go for, consider your local climate. Terra cotta is a great option for wicking excess moisture, however, if you live somewhere dry, it might be best to stick to stoneware/glazed ceramics or to keep it in the plastic nursery pot as they are non-porous. Remember that plants in terra cotta pots usually require more watering than plants in plastic.

No matter what your pot is made from, it’s crucial to make sure it has adequate drainage. Excess water can cause root rot, which can be a death sentence for many houseplants, including Calathea.

 

 

Propagating Calathea

Propagation is the process of creating an offspring of a plant through a mother plant. Some plant genera, such as philodendrons, are easily propagated from cuttings. However, this doesn’t work for Calathea.

Calathea must be propagated through division. To do this, you can unpot a healthy adult Calathea plant, and lay it down on a flat surface. Use your fingers to loosen up the root ball, and then use a sharp knife to cut the plant into sections. Make sure each section has enough roots and leaves. 

Pot each new section in its own well-draining pot. Keep your new sections warm, moist and in reduced light until they have actively started to grow. Soon, the newly established Calathea will begin to grow new leaves and thrive.

 

Common issues

From insects to diseases to care issues, there are many problems that can afflict Calathea. Here are some of the most common, and how to spot and fix them.

  • Light issues. If the leaves of your Calathea are turning yellow or brown, and their intricate patterns are disappearing, this is a sign that the light is too harsh. This can be easily fixed. Simply move your Calathea to a location where the sun’s rays don’t hit it directly.  
  • Lack of humidity. This is a frequent problem for moisture-loving Calathea living in a dry climate. You can tell your Calathea needs more humidity if the leaves turn crispy and eventually brown. To replenish it, mist it, leave it near your shower, get a humidifier, or try using a pebble tray. 
  • Root rot. This is an issue for many houseplants. Roots should be firm and white, but without quality soil or adequate drainage, they can turn dark and mushy. If you unpot the plant and see there are still some healthy roots present, you should be able to salvage the Calathea by removing any decaying matter, and replanting it into well-drained, quality soil.
  • Water stress. If the leaves on your Calathea are turning yellow, it may be suffering from water stress. These plants can’t break down the chemicals in everyday tap water. Therefore, Calathea need purified, distilled or rainwater to thrive. You can also use tap water that has been sitting out for 12-24 hours. 
  • Overwatering. If the plant’s leaves get black spots, this indicates overwatering. Let your Calathea’s soil dry out a little more between waterings.
  • Fungus gnats. These are small insects that look like fruit flies. If you’re doing a great job cultivating a high humidity environment for your Calathea, fungus gnats can be an unfortunate side effect. They are harmless but annoying. You can sometimes get rid of them by watering the Calathea bottom up: submerge its pot in water, and leave the first inch of soil dry. Although to fully eradicate them, the soil will need to dry fully. Sticky traps are also an effective option!
  • Spidermites. Spidermites are a huge problem with Calathea, since they can be swept in with the wind from an open window or come in on your clothing. These bugs are closely related to spiders, and enjoy spinning webs on Calathea. They feed on the honeydew in the leaves, puncturing plant cells in order to reach the sap which damages the leaves. Wipe down the leaves as soon as you notice spidermites. Increasing humidity levels and misting the plant on a regular basis can also make an enormous difference.  
  • Mealy bugs. These bugs look like pieces of white cotton, but if you look closely you will see that they are sucking nutrients from the Calathea. Like with spidermites, remove them by wiping down the leaves. You will need to wipe them down multiple times over the course of several weeks, and often changing the soil is needed to remove the eggs. If you can place your Calathea outside in the summer, beneficial insects will eat the mealybugs and help get rid of an infestation.  
  • Aphids. These bugs, sometimes called greenfly or blackfly, love houseplants. They are small, pear-shaped and have long legs. They suck the sap from plants, depriving them of nutrients. Again, wipe down the leaves. If you want to properly deal with a bug problem, try blasting them off by rinsing your Calathea with a gentle hose or tepid shower. If you can get your hands on beneficial insects, ladybugs love to eat aphids.

 

 

Calathea We Love

 

Peacock Plant (Calathea makoyana)

This variety of Calathea is sometimes known as “cathedral windows” because of the stained glass-like appearance of the leaves. The leaves are big and pale green, featuring darker green blotches interconnected with thin and intricate lines. The underside of the leaves is a deep purple. 

When new leaves appear, they are rolled up, so the coloured undersides are exposed. This contrasts against the green tops of the leaves. Like most other Calathea, peacocks are a stunning and elegant plant that needs plenty of humidity to thrive.

 

Pinstripe Plant (Calathea ornata)

Pinstripe plant’s big dark green leaves bear ornate striping that looks similar to the pattern on a pinstripe suit. These veins are usually white but are sometimes red or pink depending on how they have been cultivated. The look is super unique and elegant, making the pinstripe plant a gorgeous indoor plant for any room.

Calathea beauty star is one of the most popular variations of Calathea ornata, and is a key choice for any houseplant lover. Remember to keep them out of harsh and direct light to avoid leaf burn, and keep it happy by making sure it gets enough humidity.

 

Furry feather Calathea (Calathea rufibarba)

Furry feather, sometimes called velvet Calathea, is one of the most visually unique species of the genus. It is recognisable by its elongated leaves that have a fluffy, almost velvet-like texture. These uniquely textured leaves are green-blue, with red stems and a lovely dark purple underside. The furry feather plant grows up to 70 centimetres tall, making it one of the largest Calathea.

As one of the most interesting looking plants of the genus, these lanky plants are a quirky and eccentric choice for livening up a room.

 

Rattlesnake (Calathea lancifolia)

This eye-catching Calathea is a bushy, brightly coloured plant. Its lance-shaped leaves are striped, spotted and feature dark purple undersides. This makes them eye-catching and an effective way to liven up an indoor space. Rattlesnake is one of the largest plants in the genus, and grows more than 75 centimetres tall. 

Like most Calathea plants, it thrives in humidity. In a dry climate, it is best kept indoors and preferably in a bathroom or around a humidifier. It is also important to keep it away from harsh light, which will make it lose its unique leaf markings.

 

Eternal Flame (Falathea crocata)

The eternal flame sets itself apart from other members of the genus with its effervescent flowers. These bright orange and spiky flowers are where the plant gets its name. The flowers grow higher than the leaves, making them a bold feature of the plant. They last for two to three months. Without flowers, the plant still looks gorgeous with its purple-silver foliage that has an almost metallic appearance.

Being a purely tropical plant, native to Brazil, the eternal flame needs constant humidity year round. In most Western climates, it’s best to mist it every day. Remember to fertilise this plant every two weeks throughout its growing season.

 

Calathea Vittata (Calathea elliptica)

Calathea vittata has elongated tapered leaves, with beautiful cream stripes and a green border. 

Being an understory tropical plant, these plants will truly appreciate high humidity and diffused light. Grouping other plants together can increase humidity if a humidifier or a pebble tray won’t work for you. As with other Calatheas, keep away from a/c in the summer or draughty windows in the winter as the cold will give them quite a shock and cause the plant to suffer. 

 

Calathea Freddie (Calathea concinna)

Freddie is one of the smallest types of Calathea, and makes a super cute addition to an office desk. Freddie boasts slightly ruffled leaves with a silvery appearance and dark green stripes. The leaves curve along the veins, giving the plant a flowing and graceful appearance. 

While typically grown for their manageable stature and attractive foliage, these plants also like to flower sometimes. If kept at ample humidity and with the right lighting and watering, this plant will produce small, white flowers at its base.

 

Summary

Calathea are a tropical plant genus revered for their vibrant and often colourful foliage. These plants can be a little tricky to look after, but when kept out of direct sunlight and in a suitably humid environment, they will thrive and look amazing. Healthy and bold Calatheas make a vivacious addition to any room.

 

 



Author bio: Eva Stoddart is a freelance writer from New Zealand. She holds a BA in English and linguistics from the University of Otago, and enjoys writing about mental and physical well-being, relationships, beauty, and fashion. You can view more of her professional and personal work on her website: www.evastoddart.com


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