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The Ultimate Guide on How to Care for Calathea Plants

Posted on January 30 2021

The Ultimate Guide on How to Care for Calathea Plants

Calatheas have us captivated: Vibrant colors, chiseled veins, ruffled leaves, purple hues, delicate details, precise pinstripes, and sweeping brushes of white and pink tones. How could it get better? However, after leaving the balmy greenhouse, many Calatheas become a challenge for their plant parents. How can you successfully care for your Calathea plant? 

Basic Care for Your Calathea Plants

  • Lighting: Low to medium indirect light.
  • Water: When the first 1-2 inches of topsoil are dry.
  • Temperature: Between 65-85 degrees.
  • Humidity: 40-60%
  • Fertilizer: During the growing season, every two weeks with half-strength fertilizer. Stop fertilizing during dormancy.

Plant Identification & Origins

Calatheas are natives of tropical rainforests in South America, Africa, and the West Indies. Some experts use the Calathea as biological proof of Pangea, as some South American species are more closely related to African species than others located on their same continent. Either way, keeping the rainforest origins of your Calathea plant in mind will help you care for it properly.

Is a Calathea a Prayer Plant?

The simple answer: no. Science has dictated that the phrase “Prayer Plant” (which is an unscientific term, mind you) only applies to Marantas. 

 

Are you wondering about the difference between a Maranta and a Calathea? Both fall under the same broad plant family: Marantaceae. However, Calathea and Maranta are two separate gena (plural for genus). 

 

If you are new to plant terminology, you can think of the terms as an extended family tree. Marantaceae (“family”) is the grandparent, Calathea (“genus”) is the parent, and the specific “species” (such as a Rattlesnake Calathea) as the child. That makes the Calathea Rattlesnake and Maranta Lemon-Lime cousins. 

 

Many in the plant community still choose to call Calathea “Prayer Plants.” The fact is, these cousins both “pray” at night by lifting their leaves. While this choice is not scientifically accurate, it makes sense. 

Movement

The mesmerizing up-and-down arm action of plants in the Marantaceae family is called “Nyctinasty.” What triggers this action? The short answer: Light. What’s the long answer?

 

After reading this, you might consider your Calathea to be a scientific wonder! These plants have a “Phytochrome System,” which tells the Calathea when to raise and lower its leaves. Lighting conditions change your plant’s plain Phytochrome (P) chromoprotein to either “Pr” or “Pfr.” Low-light (far-red) changes Pfr to Pr. While bright-light (red) changes Pr to Pfr. What does this look like on your plant’s day?

  • When the sun is low, your Calathea is receiving far-red light, and becomes inactive (Pr). The leaves point upward.
  • When the sun brightens, your Calathea is receiving red light, and becomes active (Pfr). The leaves point downward.
  • When it’s twilight, and it’s nearing the end of the day, the Pfr protein signals for your Calathea’s joint (pulvini) to swell with water, pulling the leaf vertically. In the morning, when daylight returns, the pressure releases, lowering the leaves.

The irony is when we think of “laying down on the job,” we think of sleep. However, when a Calathea lays down, it is in its most active state. 

A Brief Lesson of Calathea Anatomy

When looking at a Calathea stem and leaf, it helps to think of it as an appendage. Scientifically speaking, the main arm (stalk) is a “petiole.” Near its end, before the leaf, you can locate a small bulge called the “pulvini” (plural: pulvinus), which acts as a wrist. The Pfr protein swells the pulvini, causing your leaves to raise and lower.

What if my Calathea stops moving?

Low light will cause your plant to lose its circadian rhythm, interfering with its Phytochrome System. To care for your Calathea plants correctly, they need to receive medium to low indirect light and experience night-and-day. The good news is, after moving your plant to a brighter location, its normal rhythm will return.

Care for your Calathea Plant's Lighting Needs

To care for your Calathea plant, you must provide it with medium to low indirect light, depending on the species. Calatheas with dark undersides use the front and back of their leaves to absorb light. Since they are doing ‘double-duty,’ these species don’t require as brightly lit conditions as the Calathea Orbifolia and other creamy-colored Calatheas.

 

Never expose your Calathea to direct sunlight because it will bleach and burn your plant’s leaves.

What if my Calathea’s leaves start turning towards the light?

Most Calatheas should have an appealing 360-degree leaf spread. If all your leaves start pointing in the same direction, this is a sign that your Calathea is getting too much light. Place your plant a few more feet away from the window.

My Calathea’s leaves are faded; what does this mean?

Faded leaf-tops are another sign that your plant is getting too much light. It is also an indicator that your plant needs a humidity boost. Light and humidity go hand-in-hand because light evaporates moisture from your Calathea’s leaves, causing dullness. Move your plant a few more feet away from the window and start misting daily.

 

Too much light can also cause the vibrant backs of some Calatheas, like the Rattlesnake, to fade. In nature, the dark underside soaks up reflected light from the rainforest floor to supplement the dim overhead light. So, if your houseplant decides it is getting sufficient light, and does not need any extra, it can essentially “turn off” this feature. Place your plant in a more dimly lit location for the purple pigmentation to return.

Why is the new growth on my plant so small?

Surprisingly small new growth indicates that your Calathea is getting insufficient light. To care for your Calathea, move your plant closer to the window. This can also be a sign that your plant needs to be repotted. (More on that below.)

"Water" You Doing Wrong?

The most common Calathea watering issue? Too much of it. While these plants should never be permitted to dry out completely, you should allow the first inch or two of soil to dry out, depending on the size of your pot. If you are unsure about watering your plant, it’s always safer to err on the side of caution. Wait to water a day or two and check again. As with most plants, do not water your Calathea as frequently during their dormancy period (Fall-Winter).

How can I increase the humidity around my Calathea?

The most consistent way to increase the moisture levels in the air is to use a humidifier. A less expensive option is to invest in a fine-mist sprayer and mist your Calatheas each morning. Remember only to spray your plants during daylight hours so that the moisture will have ample time to evaporate. Otherwise, your Calathea will become susceptible to mildew and water spots.

Why does my Calathea have brown tips?

Brown tips on your plant is a sign of inconsistent watering. What does that mean? 

  1. You are watering your plant with different amounts of water each time. Solution? Every time you water, soak your plant thoroughly until water streams out of the drainage hole. Remember, you cannot overwater your Calathea in one sitting if your container has the proper drainage.
  2. You are allowing your Calathea to (slightly) dry out too much before watering. Solution? Set reminders on your phone to check and care for your Calathea plant's moisture levels more frequently.
  3. You are following a pre-set schedule. Solution? Water your Calathea only when it needs it. Plants do not do well on a set schedule (i.e., weekly, biweekly) because they are continually absorbing different amounts of moisture based on their environment and growth. Meaning, by sticking to a rigid schedule, you could be underwatering your plant some weeks and overwatering it in others. 

Why does my Calathea have brown patches on its leaves?

Brown, crispy patches are a tell-tale sign that your plant is suffering (or has suffered) from chronic underwatering. Remember, Calatheas require that the topsoil dries out. Anything further than that will turn into a severe issue for this rainforest-dweller. 

 

Analyze your habits. Brown patches can occur after just one severe underwatering mishap, even after you re-established your regular, healthy watering routine. If this is the case, continue caring for your Calathea plants and remove the patchy leaves. If you discern that underwatering was not a one-time occurrence, start watering your plant more frequently, allowing only the topsoil to dry out.

Can I cut off my plant’s dead-looking leaves?

Absolutely yes! Leaves that have brown tips or spots will not repair themselves. Feel free to cut the stems 1-inch above soil level with clean shears. Doing so will encourage new growth.

 

If you are dealing with a highly damaged Calathea, never cut off more than 40% of its foliage because this will lead to shock. Postpone heavy trims until the growing season.

Why are my Calathea’s leaves curling?

Your curling Calathea’s leaves are a sign of two things: it’s dry or experiencing temperatures that are too warm. Calatheas can survive in a 65–85-degree environment. If you live in a hot, humid climate, these plants are not suited to outdoor living during summer.

 

If you discern that your plant needs water, soak it thoroughly. Your soil may have become hydrophobic, meaning that the water runs through it instead of being absorbed into it. A solution? Read below.

 

Care for your Calathea plant by placing it in the shower, letting it sit under the luke-warm water for 10 minutes. Remove your plant from the shower and gently place it on its side, with the leaves pointing in the same direction. Wait 20 minutes, and then place your plant (ride-side-up) in its usual location. Why does it work? The shower ensures that the soil is fully saturated. Placing the Calathea horizontally for a time helps the moisture travel to the leaves faster.

The Final Calathea Plant Care Tip: Stop the Repot

Calatheas do not require frequent repotting. These plants prefer smaller pots, which encourage them to grow more quickly. Why? Because the root system can quickly absorb the soil’s moisture, without ever getting waterlogged.

 

Never repot your Calathea during dormancy unless it’s experiencing a health emergency (such as a pest issue or disease). 

 

How can you tell if you need to repot your plant? Growth will be slower. Consistently small new-growth can also be a clue.

 

When you decide to repot your Calathea, it is imperative that you never tamper with the roots. These plants are incredibly susceptible to transplant shock. The symptoms will mimic those of underwatering. And in extreme circumstances, it can lead to plant death.

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