How to not kill your Calathea: Prayer Plant (Marantaceae) Care

So one day you find yourself walking into a garden center, or maybe you are at your local supermarket or maybe even Ikea. And then you set your eyes upon it. Oh isn’t it beautiful! That lush and sticking foliage. Your heart starts racing, love at first sight and you know you just have to have it. And so you buy it and proceed to take it home. Looking at the label if it has one reads: “Calathea mix. Place in bright indirect light and keep lightly moist”.

Simple enough and so you do and then you begin to notice that the leaves start to fold inwards, the tips start to get yellow and brown and then the plant starts to get crispy.  Slowly it begins to go downhill in a matter of days right before your eyes. As a result, you get discouraged, no more plants for you, you think to yourself, because it is obvious that you cannot grow them. Well, at least that succulent you got a while back is still alive.

Thread not, my friend, because you are not alone, many of us have fallen in love with a specific type or another of calathea plant only to try to grow them and then kill them. Like the saying goes “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” and in this case, you can’t get experience about a specific plant without first experiencing failure, to put it more delicately.

So let’s break it down on how not to kill our calathea plant.

Background check

By knowing where a specific plant comes from makes us better understand what type of care we need to provide in order to keep that plant happy, aka not dead.

In this case, calatheas (family Marantaceae) are native to the tropical Americas. From this, we can extract that they come from a climate that is warm (even hot) and moist all year long, in short, the perfect breeding grounds for lush vegetation, such as the calatheas which are typically found on the forest floor. So what does this mean for us? Well, it means that pump up your humidifier and prep thy spray bottle – these ladies like it humid. And as such, they have a lot of moisture preserving mechanisms.  One of the main reasons why they curl their leaves is to prevent moisture from evaporating. The second reason is because they live on the forest floor, which means that they are not used to intense direct light, explains the purple coating on the back of the leaves, it’s a light saving quality, preventing the light from passing through the leaves. Which for us home growers is an added bonus since they are medium and even low light plants.

The coolest thing about this genus and why they are called the prayer plants it because they like to move, especially at night time, you can see them stretch their leaves up. This also is a water preserving mechanism.

Another category where most of us fail is water quality.  Our tap water has a high TDS (total dissolved solids) for these plants. To simplify, tap water is treated with a large number of chemicals in other to kill bacteria. The yellow tips that turn brown on the leaves of the plants is usually, chlorine, bromine or salts found in tap water. In their natural environment, they don’t have this, so when it comes into contact with it, the plant has no way of eliminating it so it burns it. In order to avoid this, only use distilled, filtered or RO (reverse osmosis) water.

 

 

Summary

Now that we looked closely at the environment this plant comes from and we have extracted some conclusions let`s summarize them one last time. 

 

  • Light – Bright indirect light to bright shade. Try placing your plant somewhere where is gets bright but filtered light, like through a curtain. If the plant reacts by curling it’s leaves or starting to flop, try moving it somewhere more shaded.

 

  • Humidity – Depending on where you are in the world, you have the following options: a humidifier (we get really dry and hot summers here, so that works best for the plants), misting once or twice a day (I’d stick with the humidifier since the mist evaporates in 5 min), or you can place your plant on a tray of wet pebbles or use humidity mats. If you are lacking humidity the dried up edges and curled up leaves, will let you know how you stand in that department.

 

  • Water – Water thoroughly but make sure that the pot has drainage, no one likes rotten roots. Use only distilled, filtered or RO (Reverse osmosis) water to avoid burning and yellowing of the leaves. Tap water that is left to sit overnight in order for the impurities to evaporate, does not work, except if you live somewhere where your tap water is fresh mountain water. Then yeah! For me, on the other hand, that backfired. Try not to let the soil get bone dry or you will have a nasty surprise in the form of dry dead leaves.

 

  • Feeding – Stay away from salt heave or overly chemical fertilizers and focus more on natural supplements. By heavy in salts, I mean anything with too much Na (as in sodium) and Cl (chlorine), and we already covered why that is bad. The main nutrients that you should be focusing on are Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg) and potassium (K).

 

  • Pruning – Inevitably, I found that no matter how careful you are, some tiny brown tips will occur. If the plant starts to look a little unsightly for your liking, snip them off and then wipe the fresh cut with some 3% hydrogen peroxide since I have noticed that the leaves tend to get easily infected.

 

  • Bonus tip –  if you find that the plant has completely died back, don`t be so quick to throw it away.  They do have a deciduous nature and as a result, they go dormant (despite the care you give them), which can be a good thing if you seem to struggle at first with these beauties. Just keep the soil moist and in a couple of weeks, new shoots should begin to form.

Calatheas are not difficult once you understand them, just a little bit different than what we are used when it comes to care. For me, they are true jewels and a must in any houseplant collection. Pet safe, with a vast assortment of patterns, when it comes to foliage, don’t pass them up next time you see one at your local garden center.

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5 Comments

Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

10 Houseplants that love water – Of Greens And Fluffreply
March 27, 2019 at 00:03

[…] Hi! Are you a member of the “I kill calatheas” club? Well, so was I until recently, when I finally got the hang of these beautiful, yet fussy divas. Like with most plants, the trick is replicating the natural environment they come from. In this case, a warm and humid environment, sheltered from bright direct sun. For a more comprehensive guide on Marantaceae care, we got you covered, with a full article on HOW TO NOT KILL YOUR CALATHEA. […]

Lizreply
April 1, 2019 at 21:03
– In reply to: 10 Houseplants that love water - Of Greens And Fluff

Hi! I am not having good luck with my calathea. It’s leaves are turning yellow, some have curled slightly and some have brown edges. When I bought it, it already had some brown edges and some curling but the yellowing is new. I just got a little humidifier to put next to it, it is not in direct sun, more of a medium light area. Potting soil is miracle grow indoor potting soil, I am using a moisture metor to make sure not to over water. Anything you can tell me would be helpful, I have not found an answer online to the yellow leaves, they’re not wilted or dehydrated. Thank you!!

Chris Fluffreply
April 1, 2019 at 21:14
– In reply to: Liz

Yellow leaves are usually a sign of moisture stress. You are already using a moisture meter, so I doubt you are over-watering it. However, that does not exclude the fact that you might have bought it water-logged, so some of the roots might have rotted. I would repot it, just to check if the roots are OK, and not rotten. Furthermore, they are sensitive to drafts and if the little humidifier you bought has a cool mist, that could also stress her, since they prefer a warmer mist. My best bet is to check the roots. If they’re brown and mushy, that’s the reason. Hopefully, this is helpful. PS: when in doubt, use a hydrospike and let her hydrate herself, use only distilled water and keep it low on the fertilizer since they are intolerant to salts.

Lizreply
April 2, 2019 at 03:41
– In reply to: Chris Fluff

Wow! Thanks so much for the quick reply. This is my first time trying this, I’m desperate to keep her alive. The humidifier is new as of today so I know that wasn’t the problem before but, good to know to keep it at a little distance for the draft sensitivities. The soil does not dry out every week. Would you suggest mixing the current soil with some cactus or perlite or something to help it drain faster? Also, should I cut back the yellow leaves? Will they recover once I’m doing the right things? I wonder if I over potted it just a bit too…

Chris Fluff
April 2, 2019 at 19:47
– In reply to: Liz

It depends on a couple of things: 1 is your climate – if you live in an overall dry and hot climate, adding extra drainage is not necessary but if you live in a temperate to cool climate then perlite should help with aeration. The second thing is the type of pot – plastic,metal and glassed terracotta helps keep the soil moist for longer. Now, i would suggest repotting the plant just to check the root system and into substrate that does not have any added fertilizes because if the plant is stressed than feeding it only makes things worse. The yellow leaves will eventually turn brown and crispy, but with time the plant will recover nicely just don’t let her stay wet all the time because this will kill her. The sweet spot with these types of girls is moist, so even when watering if the moisture meter shows wet upon watering but the next day is moving to almost moist you are good to go. Also moisture meters tend to oxidize and read a faulty dry. A quick way to check if this is so, is to place it in a cup of normal tap water (if you place it in distilled water it will not read anything since distilled water has no minerals) and see if it reads wet- if it reads dry or moist while it is in water then just clean the tips off with some sanding paper and try again until you get a normal reading. Calathea plants tend to make us panic but they are really easy when we understand that they prefer:
– a warm humid environment hence no cold drafts
– a nice drink of distilled or RO water and occasionally some feeding during active growth. I have found that they are not heavy feeders.
– they love a constant moist soil but are susceptible to root rot = yellow leaves if they stay wet all the time and the root system cannot breathe.

Hope this helps you out and enjoy your calathea baby, they are not as fussy as we think, we just tend to panic a lot around them.

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