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.
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.
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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