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Calatheas or so-called 'prayer plants' are a group of plants from the tropics, which are grown as indoor pot plants mainly for their striking and attractively-marked foliage, which often bears spot and / or stripes, usually in some shade of dark purple or chocolate brown. There are two main families seen as pot plants - the Marantas, that tend to spread by means of horizontal stems and have a shorter growth habit, versus the tall Calatheas proper which grow upright, with some of the larger varieties being 'specimen' type plants that can reach three or four feet tall. In Calatheas, the leaves appear to grow up directly from the soil, as the stems from which they develop grow just under, or directly resting on, the ground surface. The leaves of Marantas also tend to be thinner and more delicate than the slightly leatherier leaves that Calatheas have in general, and some Calathea varieties also have a slightly velvety 'nap' to them, that gives a gorgeous bloom to the leaf surfaces. The Calatheas also tend to have differently coloured upper versus lower leaf surfaces, a feature that becomes obvious when the plants demonstrate the reason for the 'prayer' part of their name: in ideal conditions of light and humidity, the leaves fold in two along the midribs at night, closing shut in a way that to some people, seems reminiscent of a pair of hands clasped together in prayer.
These plants have the reputation of being tricky to maintain as houseplants, because as a group, they require higher humidity levels than are found in the average house. They are also unusually sensitive to the cold - including draughts indoors - which can cause damage to the foliage and, while they need to be kept in moist soil at all times, they also are easily damaged by over-watering, which again causes the leaves to begin to rot. In addition to all this, too much light - for example, direct sunlight - will easily scorch the leaves leading to the development of dead, brown areas, which are unsightly and may eventually cause the affected leaf to dry up and wither on the plant.
I found that it's true that it can be difficult to encourage Calatheas to grow larger, but in 'barely adequate' conditions, they will persist - though gradually declining in size - for many years. A Calathea we left at my mother-in-law's, back in 1998 while we were moving house and never got round to re-homing is still alive though it's decreased in size from the spectacular, three foot high plant it once was. It still produces leaves but the largest of these is probably no more than about 10 inches long.
Large potted Calatheas occasionally turn up for sale in supermarkets, though I've seen them more regularly on sale at 'Focus' DIY shop, where you can expect to pay around the £8 to £10 mark for a two to three foot high specimen. Marantas sometimes turn up for sale in garden centres - often potted up in plastic hanging-basket style pots, since (presumably) the horizontally spreading stems will cause new growth to hang down attractively. A better bet for getting one is from someone you know who already grows these plants: Marantas are very easy to propagate as the spreading stem-sections also bear tiny 'buds' that readily will develop into roots if a cutting is taken and potted up in compost.
The Prayer plant (Maranta), also know as the Ten Commandments, has become a very popular houseplant due to its compact size and beautiful decorative foliage. The plants pale green leaves are marked with dark patches between the veins, which become darker as the leaf ages, and the underside of the leaf is a gray-green with hints of purple. In its native homelands of Brazil, Asia and Africa the Prayer plant grows as groundcover, spreading across the forest floor from one patch of dappled light to the next. At night the Prayer plant folds its leaves up together, resembling hands in prayer, thus its more common name. Although you will never actually see the leaves of your plant moving to do this, it is a strange sight when you first notice the bushy plant of an hour ago is now standing up straight and flat. The Prayer plant belongs to the Marantaceae family, which contains 30 genera and 400 species, of which 23 species belong to the Maranta genera. Of these 23 Maranta only three can actually be grown as houseplants, Maranta Leuconeura, Maranta Leuconeura Kerchoveana and Maranta Leuconeura Erythroneura being the most common. These plants can reach up to a foot in height, and the intricately patterned, blunt ended leaves grow to about 6 inches long. They also produce small white or light-blue flowers that gather at the end of long stems, but these are very rarely seen on indoor specimens in this country. Although the care needed by each of the different types of Prayer plant is very similar, they are each quite distinctly patterned and therefore easy to tell apart. Maranta Leuconeura, sometimes called the Silver Feather Maranta or Black Maranta, has very dark green leaves with gray-blue markings between the veins. Maranta Leuconeura Kerchoveana, as well as being known as a Prayer plant, has also been given the names Rabbit’s Foot, Rabbit’s Tracks or simply Green Maranta. It is one of the most common Prayer plants, seen in
great numbers at garden centers and supermarkets, so if you own a Prayer plant 9 times out of 10 this is the one it will be. The leaves of the Kerchoveana are a light green on top with an underside of pale gray. Between the veins are chocolate-brown markings, which could be said to resemble a rabbit’s footprint, hence, two of its more common names. Maranta Leuconeura Erythroneura, also know as Fascinator, Herringbone Plant, Red-vein Maranta or Red Nerve Plant, is the most colourful of the species, with deep olive-green leaves which fade to a lighter green towards the middle. The veins and the underside of the leaves are a bright red. This variety is a stunningly coloured plant that would brighten up any home, however they are not as easy to come across as Kerchoveana. All Prayer plants are very tender and therefore hate drafts and the cold, and will just curl up and die if kept anywhere below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Whilst they need a lot of light they are best kept out of direct sunlight, bright filtered light being the ideal. Their atmosphere should be kept fairly humid and the plants misted several times a day, because of this they are an ideal plant for a bottle garden or the bathroom. Although the Maranta can grow to be a quite large plant it is best kept in a short half pot, as it does have a rather shallow root system. The pot will need good drainage, as Prayer plants do not tolerate being waterlogged, and they need a lot of water during the summer, with a liquid feed about once a month. In the winter keep them in a nice warm room and water moderately when the soil looks dry. As Prayer plants grow their long leafed stems fall over the side of the pot, don’t worry about this, its quite natural and can look very attractive in a hanging basket. However, the plant can become very sparse and straggly before or after this happens and in these cases it is sometimes best to trim the plant back. Marantas respond well to
being trimmed at least twice a year, as this helps to keep the plant compact and promotes vigorous new growth. Although Prayer plants grow quite slowly, never becoming very tall, they do spread themselves quite wide, and if the plant seems to be out-growing its container then it is time to pot it on. This is best done in February or March, just before the main growth period. When the plant is transferred to its new pot don’t pack the soil around it too hard, rather, firm it gently with your fingers. Water the potted on plant sparingly until the roots have had a chance to spread themselves out, and then water as usual. Potting the plant on is also the best time to thing about either splitting the plant into 2 or more new plants, or separately potting up any babies the plant may have produced. Baby Prayer plants can be found near the base and the roots of the main plant, and should be teased out gently if they have already developed their own rooting system. Keep baby plants somewhere that is quite warm and water sparingly until they are well established. To split a large plant you will need to carefully cut through the rhizomes with a sharp, clean knife, making sure not to bruise them too much, as this could lead to the plant rotting. Once the plant is split pot up your separate sections and water sparingly until established. As I have already stated, Prayer plants are quite a tender plant and therefore they are susceptible to a quite a few pests and problems, but nothing that can’t be sorted out with a bit of care. If the plant is in direct sunlight the leaves will become pale and scorched, the plant should be moved at once to an area that has filtered light and any dead foliage removed. Leaves that are curled or spotted with yellow patches, especially low down on the plant, are a sign of under-watering. The Prayer plant should be kept moist during the growing season, the compost not being allowed to dry out too much, but neith
er should it be left sitting in water. If the plant is water logged drain off any excess water and allow the compost to dry out a little. Dry, brown leaf tips, stunted growth and leaves falling off mean that the air is too dry for the plant. Remove any dead foliage and mist the plant as often as possible, perhaps standing it on a dish of moist pebbles to improve humidity. If the plant becomes very loose and limp near the base then the stem is rotting due to either the compost being too wet, or the air too dry. Once a plant has begun to rot it is very hard to save it, however, if it is rotting in only one area cut this off at once and either mist or leave the plant to dry out. Spider mites, Scales and Mealy bugs are common pest of the Prayer plant, but all can be treated with a houseplant insecticide. Spider mites are very small and therefore hard to spot until their damage is done. The early signs of these mites are legions along the margin of the leaf, then the plant begins to turn yellow or speckled and loses leaves, and if left without treatment will soon die. Plants infested with Scales become weak and stunted as the 2mm long, dark-brown bugs eat away at the leaves. Insecticide will soon rid the plant of these oval shaped creepy crawlies, but if left to go on eating and reproducing the Scales will kill the plant then spread to any other greenery you may have in the area. Mealy bugs look like cottony, white masses on the lower part of leaves and the roots. Infested plants develop brown, dry leaf tips, stunted growth and a sooty mould, and if left untreated die. Treat with an insecticide and mist the plant often until all signs of the pest have gone. With all pests and diseases in any species of plant it is best to separate it from any other plants you may have as soon as the first signs of infestation are spotted. Prayer plants are toxin free and a safe specimen if you have children or pets that can’t resist hav
ing a nibble or two on a green leaf. Placed on a low table, in a hanging basket, bottle garden, shallow dish garden or a combination planter Marantas are a versatile, uniquely patterned plant that will look beautiful in any home. However, they are certainly not a beginner’s best option, taking a lot of trial and error to find the conditions they require to thrive. I have 6 Prayer plants, all the Rabbit’s Foot variety, and these are the lucky few that have survived my blundering attempts to keep them alive. I dread to think how many I have watched wither and die over the years because of my lack of knowledge and the thought that I could treat them as I would have done any other houseplant. Finally I decided to actually read up on what was needed to keep them going! Now I have 5 in my bedroom and 1 in the office all doing very well. I’ve noticed from all this extensive research (!) that if a plant seems to die away completely, if it is cut right back and left in a warm humid room, it may start to sprout new growth again. So if you haven’t been very lucky with your Prayer plant don’t throw it in the bin just yet, it may still surprise you. --*--*--*--*--*--*--* If you want to see a picture of a very rare variegated Prayer plant then point your mouse here. http://www.touchofthetropics.com/images/ calatheas_marantas/maranta_leuconeura_kerchoviana_var02.jpg To see different species of Prayer plants head this way. http://www.plant-a-seed.co.uk/prayer.html