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Calathea (Peacock Plant / Zebra Plant / Rattlesnake Plant)

About the Calathea Houseplant

When Calathea is grown as a houseplant it sometimes goes by the name Peacock Plant, Zebra Plant or Rattlesnake Plant because of its leaf markings, but it's much more common to stick to its Latin name of Calathea.

A large number of different Calathea houseplants growing together

Occasionally you may find it labeled as "Prayer Plant" but this is probably a mislabel as the "Prayer Plant" is strictly a Maranta and therefore belongs in the Marantaceae family.

Although (and we promise it won't get any more complicated than this) the Marantaceae family also includes the Calathea genus. So basically the plants are both closely related, they look very similar and essentially have the same care requirements.

There are several houseplants which are grown exclusively for their foliage, and the Calathea is one of these. The leaves and plants themselves come in many shapes and sizes, each one will normally have gorgeous looking ornately patterned leaves, on occasion the markings can look almost artificial or painted on by a talented artist.

The leaf markings can look almost artificial or painted on by a talented artist.

The leaves tend to stand stiffly away from the main plant and if you're attentive you'll notice that they change position slightly during the day in response to changes in temperature and humidity or moisture requirements. We could ramble on about how beautiful they look, instead however look around this page at the photos which hopefully capture just a little of the available variety.

This is a houseplant that is not grown for it's flowers (which tend to be rare indoors anyway). That is true for all Calathea's except for C. crocata otherwise known as the "Flowering Calathea" which within the last few years has become incredibly popular and desired. It can be costly but the unique large number orange flowers and inherited good looking shaped (although plain) leaves often makes it worth the expense.

If treated properly they will produce large leaves and grow into a fairly large houseplant. This means they won't be long term guests on small window shelves, but arguably they look best when looking down at them from above anyway.

Photo showing the leaves of Calathea varieties C. zebrina and C. lancifolia

Left - C. zebrina and Right - C. lancifolia

If you plan to stick with the foliage as the focus then look out for C. makoyana, C. insignis, C. leopardina, C. zebrina and C. lancifolia. The last two are shown in the photo above and the others can be seen in our photo gallery.

All that beauty comes with a trade off however and that is in the care requirements. This is not an easy houseplant to keep. If you're inexperienced or prefer low maintenance house guests you might want to try something else first. Either way, they can definitely live indoors for many years - just check out our readers comments for their success stories and beautiful photos.

The care instructions are detailed in full below, and while not overly special or difficult, the plant is not forgiving if you mistreat it for long periods of time.

Calatheas can make great house plants and there are many to choose from

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Calathea Photos

Calathea Care Guide

Light

No direct sunlight for Calathea's otherwise you will lose the markings. On the other hand very dark spots need to be given a miss as well.

A North facing windowsill would be the first choice here, but any other situation will be acceptable providing you can provide shielding from the direct sunlight these places would receive at some point during the day. For example a south facing window which is heavily shaded by tree would be ideal.

For a Calathea to thrive as a house plant, high humidity, warm temperatures and regular watering is needed

Watering

People often come unstuck with the Calathea when it comes to its watering requirements and here's why. This plant demands to be moist at all times, but not "wet" or sitting in water.

This means regular small amounts of water during the growing seasons as soon as the surface starts to dry up. Although the plant will let you off a little and accept less water when things turn cooler and darker as Winter approaches and takes hold.

Humidity

For Calathea to thrive as house plants, high humidity, temperatures and lots of water is neededLike your watering approach, humidity is really important for a healthy and attractive looking Calathea. They all require high humidity and failure to provide this is one of the main causes of failure. Young or naturally small varieties would be excellent choices for a Bottle Garden.

If this isn't an option, you must find other ways to increase humidity, regular misting of the leaves, while helpful is unlikely to be effective long term in a very arid place. If you are serious about keeping this plant indoors and struggling to keep the humidity high have a read of our humidity article for some pointers.

Feeding

If you have a plant that's a year or so and growing well, feed every fortnight during the growing seasons (Spring, Summer) with a half strength proprietary houseplant fertilizer. None at all in Winter and avoid leaf shine products especially those with fertilizer included.

Temperature

Healthy and vigorous plants will result from warm to high temperatures with reasonable ventilation but without any strong draughts. Aim for a temperature range between 15°C (60°F) - 21°C (70 °F) all year around. Never lower than 15°C (59°F).

Repotting

If your plant is growing well, look to repot every year or every other year during Spring or Summer into fresh potting soil. If you want to propagate your Calathea (see below) you can do this at repotting time, although the overall "bushy" look will be drastically changed.

Propagation

Propagating large Calatheas is quite easy by division. All the leaves rise from a central root stock and in time a clump of these roots will form and spread out slightly from the centre. All you need to do is gently divide the plant in half (or into even smaller pieces if you have a very large plant to start with) and pot each new section into it's own pot. Try to make sure each section has some of the original roots.

Then all you have to do is keep the divisions shady, warm and moist by covering the pots and new plants with plastic. Once you can see new growth starting (usually within a month) remove the plastic and grow as normal.

Speed of Growth

These houseplants have a moderately fast growth rate.

Height / Spread

Indoor Calathea's can reach a good age and large size with correct care. The Flowering Calathea will reach a smaller size of 30cm / 12in (excluding the height of the flowers) or so where as the others could easily be double that at 60cm / 2ft.

Flowers

Calathea crocata is the only indoor Calathea that flowersThe majority of Calathea's do not flower, or rather they do not flower indoors and this is because the conditions aren't suitable for them to do so.

The exception to this is C. crocata which is sold not because of its leaf markings or shape, but because it does indeed produce wonderful orange flowers that wave above the plant's basic foliage. C. crocata will repeat flower again if you maintain good conditions as instructed above.

A few of our readers have had other Calathea's other than C. crocata flower indoor. They've kindly shared their photos in the comments below if you're curious about what they look like.

Are Calathea Plants Poisonous?

A beautiful looking foliage plant that has the added bonus of not being poisonous to people or pets.

Anything else?

When the leaves get dusty (and they will), clean them with a damp cloth or wash the dirt off under a tepid shower. Do not use leaf shine products on Calatheas.

Caring for Calathea Plants Recap

  1. Medium Light Levels Keep away from both full sun and dark places - somewhere between the two is perfect

  2. Regular Watering When the plants growing you must keep watering to keep the soil moist and damp. However it must never be "wet" or "soggy".

  3. Warm Temperatures This is a tropical plant that needs warm temperatures between 15°C (60°F) - 21°C (70 °F) all year round.

  4. Feeding Provide feed to the soil once or twice a month during Spring and Summer.

  • Do not allow the soil to dry out fully.
  • Do not put your plant in a place which receives direct sunlight.
  • No leafshine products.

Calathea Problems

Crispy brown leaf edges and poor Calathea growth

This problem would be a classic case of low humidity. These plants demand warm and humid conditions pretty much constantly, if you don't provide this then the leaves will quickly become tatty looking. Cut off the brown bits and improve its treatment going forward.

Leaves curling and spotted, with lower yellow leaves

Too little water i.e. underwatering. The soil needs to be kept moist for the majority of the time during the growing season. The only time it will forgive you for this is during the Winter when it has stopped growing, if you let the soil dry out at any other time of the year these type of symptoms will appear.

Limp, rotting stems or drooping leaves

This could be a sign of overwatering, although it's more likely a sign of the temperature being too cold or from exposure to draughts. The damage will not be reversible if this is prolonged, move to a warmer spot or away from the cold draught immediately if you ever notice this happening.

Leaf pattern fading / washed out appearance

This will have been caused by one of two reasons - either too much light or not enough. In 90% of cases it's due to exposure to direct sunlight. Find a new shadier home for your plant.

Botrytis (Grey mold)

This is hard to pull off seeing as all Calathea plants love high humidity! But if the surrounding air is extremely muggy then this is entirely possible. Try to provide additional ventilation to the area.

Red Spider Mite

If you have Red Spider Mite's setting up shop, then your plants in real trouble. Red Spider Mite's can be very hard to spot with the naked eye, but they spin their tell tale cobwebs that let you know what you're dealing with immediately.

The reason your plant's in serious trouble is because these mites absolutely hate highly humid places whereas your plant needs this environmental condition to thrive in your home. So if this pest turns up then your Calathea isn't being cared for properly and is likely already struggling. This means the Spider Mite attacks will be doing more damage than if they were attacking a healthy plant.

Check out our pest guide to help you get rid of this pest, then return to this guide and read through our care instructions above for help and get you back on track.


About the Author

Tom Knight

Tom Knight

Over the last 20 years, Tom has successfully owned hundreds of houseplants and is always happy to share knowledge and lend his horticulture skills to those in need. He is the main content writer for the .

Also on Ourhouseplants.com


Credit for Various Calathea growing in a greenhouse Article / Gallery - Kor!An
Credit for C. lancifolia - Gallery - Leroy
Credit for C. zebrina and C. leopardina - Gallery taken by Forest & Kim Starr
Credit for C. makoyana leaves - Gallery - Stickpen
Credit for C. lancifolia leaves - Gallery Dinkum


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