Calathea: Caring For The Rattlesnake Plant, Zebra Plant and More

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Have you ever grown a rattlesnake plant? How about a peacock plant? A zebra plant? All of these are forms of calathea!

Let’s explore the delightful and fun world of this gorgeous and popular houseplant. With many vivid variations, this leafy plant can be a perfect addition to your living space.

In some areas of the world, they’re useful as well as decorative. Calathea leaves are used to wrap a specific type of tamale in Guatemala, for instance. In Thailand, calathea leaf rice containers are popular amongst the tourist trade.

But enough about the uses of calathea. Let’s get on to what it is and how to grow it!

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Calathea Overview

Common Name Calathea, rattlesnake plant, cigar calathea, Cuban cigar, pampano, maxan, peacock plant, cathedral windows, striped calathea, pin stripe calathea, pin-striped calathea, rose-painted calathea, zebra plant
Scientific Name Calathea lancifolia, Calathea lutea, Calathea makoyana, Calathea orbifolia, Calathea ornata, Calathea picturata, Calathea roseopicta, Calathea veitchiana, Calathea zebrina and many others
Family Marantaceae
Light Bright, indirect lighting
Water Prefers moist soil but do not overwater
Temperature 75 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal
Humidity 50% or higher humidity at all times
Soil African violet soil or similar
Fertilizer Extremely light fertilizer
Pests Spider mites, aphids, mealybugs, scale insects, fungus gnats, root knot nematodes, burrowing nematodes, caterpillars, slugs
Diseases Pseudomonas leaf spot, psuedomonas blight, alternaria leaf spot, helminthosporium leaf spot, fusarium, root rot, cucumber mosaic virus

Types of Calathea

There’s nearly three hundred cultivars of Calathea, split up amongst several dozen species. While I can’t cover them all in one article, I can give you a good overview of this Marantaceae family plant’s more popular varieties.

Calathea lancifolia, ‘Rattlesnake Plant’

Calathea lancifolia
Calathea lancifolia. Source: Anita363

This tropical evergreen can be grown outdoors in parts of California, Florida, and Hawaii, but otherwise is a common indoor houseplant. It requires temperatures of 60 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer.

Its pattern looks very similar to that of a specific type of rattlesnake, hence the name. The upper part of the leaf is a nice midrange green, with darker edges and oval spots. Underneath, the leaf tends to maroon or reddish-purple coloration.

While indoors these typically grow to a foot and a half in size, outdoor plants can grow up to an extra foot of height. These are quite popular to grow as their foliage is vibrant and appealing.

Calathea lutea, ‘Cigar Calathea’, ‘Cuban Cigar’, ‘Pampano’, ‘Maxan’

Calathea lutea
Calathea lutea. Source: Tony Rodd

Used to wrap tamales in Guatemala, calathea lutea has long and paddle-shaped leaves. This calathea plant tends to grow much larger than the average calathea at 6-10′ in height outdoors. Indoors, it tends to grow smaller in size.

Calathea lutea’s leaves are huge, sometimes reaching a meter in length. A natural waxy substance forms on the underside of the leaf to protect them against the heat. This makes them perfect as container leaves.

The cigar reference is to its flowers, which are waxy reddish-brown or brown bracts that look like cigars. Tiny yellow flowers appear between these bracts, but the bracts are where it derives the name!

Calathea makoyana, ‘Peacock Plant’, ‘Cathedral Windows’

Calathea makoyana
Calathea makoyana. Source: Merce

Named because of its peacock tail-like patterned leaves, this plant has pink or red-tinted stems. Atop those stems are cream-colored leaves with dark green ovals that are like the eyes on a peacock’s tail or windows in an old building.

Underneath the leaves, the patterning is mirrored, except that the deep green is replaced with pinkish to purplish tones.

This plant is particularly sensitive to humidity levels, and prefers a wetter climate. It can be grown indoors under the right conditions.

Calathea makoyana has earned the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Calathea orbifolia

Calathea orbifolia
Calathea orbifolia. Source: Operating System

With rounded oval leaves instead of spearpoint-shaped ones, calathea orbifolia is a rather striking variety. It has wider stripes than the pin stripe calathea mentioned below.

Where calathea orbifolia diverges from other calatheas is in its size. Mature specimens can have leaves between 15″ and 35″ wide, and grow to several feet tall outdoors.

Indoors it tends to a smaller size, but still gets much wider leaves than other calathea specimens.

Calathea ornata, ‘Striped Calathea’, ‘Pin Stripe Calathea’, ‘Pin-Striped Calathea’

Calathea ornata
Calathea ornata. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lush, deep green leaves form the base for what looks like feathery stripes of lighter green, white, ivory, or pink in this variety. These fine stripes create the same look as a bird’s plumage might.

Punctuated by the slender stem, it is highly attractive!

The underside of the leaves has a distinct purplish hue which is similar to that of a rattlesnake plant. As the plant gets older, even the pink-striped varieties tend to fade to a creamy white striping that’s still quite appealing.

Calathea picturata

Calathea picturata
Calathea picturata. Source: techieoldfox

This attractive plant’s coloration suggests multiple leaves stacked atop each other. On most varieties, the majority of the leaf is a silvery-green hue, edged in a wide band of dark green.

Some cultivars even have a third layer of dark green forming a third leaf-shape in the center of the oval-like, pointy-tipped leaf. The underside of the leaves will mirror their patterning in deep purple and bright pink.

Calathea roseopicta, ‘Rose-Painted Calathea’

Calathea roseopicta
Calathea roseopicta. Source: Starr Environmental

There are quite a number of cultivars of the rose-painted calathea, mostly because of its interesting leaf pattern. Bands of color seem to radiate out from the leafstem in varying shades of light or dark green.

The stem itself can have a purple or pinkish hue, and sometimes that coloring will carry into young leaf bands. As the leaves mature, the lighter tones tend to turn white, where the dark green remains deep and vivid.

This calathea can produce small white or purplish flowers during the summer months. The flowers themselves are not as showy as the leaves, but they do help in seed production!

Calathea veitchiana

Calathea veitchiana
Calathea veitchiana. Source: Dick Culbert

The leaves of this calathea bring that purplish color to the upper part of the leaf, paired up with the standard light and dark green hues. Burgundy or purple banding is a large part of this difficult-to-find calathea’s look, and it’s gorgeous.

However, it’s also considered near-threatened in its homeland of Ecuador. While it can be found occasionally in tropical arboretums, calathea veitchiana is hard to find at the local garden center.

If you can find it, it’s worth growing it just for the coloring! Its purple-flecked white flowers can also be pretty, in season, but don’t last for long.

Calathea zebrina, ‘Zebra Plant’

Calathea zebrina
Calathea zebrina. Source: Ahmad Fuad Morad

The striping of the leaves of the zebra plant are inspiration for its name. Dark green patches on a light, silvery-green background, these stripes are both distinctive and beautiful.

This shouldn’t be confused with the other zebra plant, Aphelandra squarrosa. Calathea zebrina does share a common name with it, but doesn’t have the yellow flowers of the Aphelandra variety.

It’s easy to tell the two apart, as calathea zebrina has much wider and distinctive stripes on a lighter background.

Calathea Care

All calatheas can be a bit tricky at first. These tropical plants are finicky, and prefer only specific conditions. But if you can provide good calathea plant care, you’ll have a stunning tropical plant to liven your living space.

Light and Temperature

Zone 10-11 is ideal for calathea plants, but with a caveat: most don’t perform optimally in full sun.

Bright, indirect light is essential for their growth, and a lot of it. Calatheas prefer 8 hours of this bright indirect lighting per day. With the exception of older calathea lutea plants, most will wilt if they get too much direct sunlight.

Temperature is also important for these plants. Most calatheas won’t perform well at all at temperatures below 65, and some will even start to fail below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. They like it to be around 75 degrees or warmer.

Calatheas can be grown in other zones too, but only indoors. If growing indoors, most will be happy at 70-75 degrees, provided that they get enough indirect lighting.

Be sure that your plants are kept out of drafty locations and away from vents or other air sources. They are extremely sensitive to sudden temperature shifts, and if your plant ends up in the path of the air conditioner, disaster may strike!

Water

Showing the purplish underside of leaves
The undersides of calathea leaves have a purplish color. Source: M.P.N.texan

The calathea plant loves humidity! However, it hates wet feet. This makes for a delicate balancing act at times.

This plant is especially sensitive to water quality. It likes pure water, but anything that is hard, fluoridated, or otherwise altered may cause leaf tip browning or leaf curling. As a tropical, it’s also sensitive to the water’s temperature.

When watering calatheas, use room-temperature water if at all possible. Opting for distilled water is safest. If you don’t have distilled at hand, fill a container with water and let it sit open for at least 24 hours before use.

Ensure that the soil is evenly moist, but not soggy. Too much water can cause distress to the plant. Avoid wetting the leaves directly, and only water if the soil feels dry to the touch in the top inch or two.

So how do you get high humidity for calatheas without watering heavily?

Indoors, it’s simple: place a pebble tray beneath the plant. You want about an inch of pebbles in the tray, and you want the pebbles to have water about halfway up the sides. Avoid filling the tray completely, as that can make the soil too wet.

It’s important to keep your plant out of the direct path of vents, such as air conditioning vents or heater vents. These can dry out the soil conditions and reduce the humidity around your plant.

Soil

Two things are essential in regards to calathea soil: it must be kept moist, but not wet, and it needs to be well-draining.

There’s a few options out there in regards to what sort of soil to use for your plants.

Some prefer a grittier mix like African violet potting soil, and this tends to work surprisingly well once you’ve adjusted your watering. Others prefer a blend of 2 parts peat moss, 2 parts perlite, and 1 part potting soil or fine compost.

I tend to lean towards African violet mix for calatheas. An off-the-shelf African violet mix has good drainage, and the peat moss holds just enough water to allow the soil to remain moist most of the time.

One thing which is not advisable with these plants is to mulch around them. Avoid stone chip mulches especially, as the calathea plants don’t seem to like them at all. You want the soil to provide extra humidity through evaporation.

If you’re using an especially well-draining mix, or you have a tendency to forget to water, you may want to add a water wick. To do this, you need a scrap of cotton cloth, like an old piece of T-shirt material.

When potting your plant, ensure the material goes into the lower part of the soil and hangs out the bottom of the pot. Place your pot over a pebble tray with the material dipped into the water.

Moisture will wick up through the cloth and into the soil as needed.

Fertilizer

Calathea zebrina flowers
Calathea zebrina flowers are fairly tame compared to the leaves. Source: Dick Culbert

When fertilizing a calathea, less is more. Calatheas don’t require a whole lot of fertilization.

I recommend using a half-teaspoon of a kelp fertilizer diluted in a liter of distilled water. Once a month, replace your regular watering with a small dose of this very diluted fertilizer solution, and spread out that liter over some time.

This should be ample nutrition for your plant. Signs that it might be too much include yellowing of leaves or drooping and wilting. However, these can also be signs of other problems including under-fertilizing, so be cautious.

Spring, summer, and fall fertilizing is all that some cultivars require. If your plant regularly yellows after monthly fertilizing, reduce the frequency to that rate.

Propagation and Repotting

Unlike other plants in the Marantaceae family, calathea cannot be propagated reliably from cuttings. Similarly, not all species flower to produce seed, so propagation by seed is difficult if not impossible.

The only reliable way to propagate calathea plants is via division. This is generally done when you’re thinking about repotting to a larger size pot. Rather than expand the place, why not multiply your plant?

Start by moistening some African violet potting mix. You don’t want it wet, just damp to the touch. Place a small amount in the bottom of each pot that you intend to use.

Then, carefully remove your calathea from its existing pot, using your fingers to dust away excess soil. Once you’ve bared the roots, look closely at the joints where the roots attach to the stems.

Using your fingers, gently pry apart small stem-and-root segments. You want a few leaves along with their attached root system. Repot in fresh, pre-moistened potting mix. Plant your calathea at the same depth it was planted before.

This same procedure can be done if you do wish to repot your entire plant. Simply dust away excess soil and start in a fresh pot filled with pre-moistened African violet mix. Your previously-used soil can be added right to your compost pile.

Pruning

Calathea veitchiana closeup
Calathea veitchiana showing new leaf growth. Source: CabbageRoseCat

For the most part, pruning is an aesthetic measure when calatheas are concerned. Older leaves can turn yellow or brown with age. These should be trimmed off using a clean and sterile pair of pruning shears, right above the soil’s surface.

If the yellowing leaves are closer to the center of the plant, your plant’s trying to warn you of a problem. It could be the temperature is not right, or you’re watering too much or too little.

Calatheas also yellow if they’re overfertilized, or if they don’t like the water they’re being served, or if there’s too many mineral salts in their soil. Lighting (either too much or too little) can also be the culprit.

It takes some practice to figure out what your plant’s telling you, so be patient!

Avoid trimming those central leaves, and try to focus on causes that might be causing them to yellow. Once you find the right thing, the plant will perk back up.

Brown tips on leaves are fairly common amongst calatheas. In fact, they’re so common that most gardeners simply use those sterile pruning shears to nearly trim off the brown edge, leaving the rest of the leaf as good as new.

Leaves will continue to grow after being trimmed.

Finally, if your calathea is one of the type that does flower, be sure to trim off dead flower stalks once they’ve faded. This encourages your plant to put its energy into new growth. Remove the entire stalk where it joins the base of the plant.

Calathea Problems

Calathea
A mix of calatheas. Source: wallygrom

As mentioned above, calatheas can be finicky little plants. Here’s how to handle some of the most common issues for the best possible outcome.

Growing Problems

Many new calathea owners discover that their leaves seem to curl or roll. This is usually caused by a lack of humidity around the plant.

Increase the humidity to 50% or greater by either ensuring that it’s on top of a pebble tray, or by adding a humidifier nearby.

You can also squeeze a spray or two of water mist onto the leaves, but not enough to cause water droplets to build up. Use distilled water for this purpose.

Wilting, yellowing plants can signify a large number of problems (some of which I covered in the pruning section above).

Keep track of when you water your calathea initially, as well as when you fertilize it, how much light it’s getting each day, and other conditions. If one is less than optimal, you may be able to figure out which condition needs tweaking.

Pale leaves are a symptom of too little fertilizer. If your leaves seem washed out or faded, you may need to add a nitrogen-rich fertilizer to your upcoming watering regimen.

Iron is also a micronutrient that’s important to calatheas, and can be found in both fish fertilizer and kelp fertilizer.

Don’t use too large of a pot for your calathea! When you repot, use a pot that’s only an inch or so wider than your existing pot if you’re trying to encourage growth. A big pot can make for soil that stays too wet, and can cause root rot.

Pests

Insect damaged calathea picturata
Insect damage to calathea picturata. Source: Reinaldo Aguilar

The most common pest for calathea is the spider mite. These can be a major danger for any houseplant, but they seem to especially like these lush tropicals.

The most common treatment for these is neem oil, but you may prefer the scent of Mite-X indoors as it smells mostly of cloves.

Aphids are also easily controlled by either of the two above treatments, although neem oil is a bit more effective. Unlike spider mites, these are a bit less common indoors, but they can still appear.

Mealybugs and other scale insects can appear on your calathea. Once again, neem oil is effective against these pests, but you may consider an alternative such as Safer Soap.

One other bug that neem oil can combat is the fungus gnat. These little bugs are more of an annoyance than anything else, as the adults form clouds of tiny little pests, but the larvae can eat through your plant’s roots.

Since you can’t see fungus gnat larvae unless you dig into the soil, I recommend adding beneficial nematodes to the soil to help protect the root structure.

There’s an added perk to those beneficial nematodes, too. Any of the root knot nematodes or burrowing nematodes that might attack your plant’s roots will be eliminated!

Some forms of caterpillars will happily eat calathea leaves. Laid by a variety of moths or butterflies, these little larval forms are easily wiped out with a spray of Monterey BT.

Finally, if your plants are outdoors, you may find that slugs will devour leaves, creating huge holes and large missing sections. A bait like Garden Safe Slug & Snail Bait will distract them from the plants and kill them off.

Diseases

Closeup of calathea zebrina
A closeup of a calathea zebrina leaf. Source: El Chepi

Psuedomonas bacteria can cause two different problems: psuedomonas leaf spot, and psuedomonas blight.

With psuedomonas leaf spot, water-soaked spots will form on your plant’s leaves. These will usually be dark green to black, and there’s rarely more than a couple on any particular leaf. A copper-based fungicide such as Monterey Liquid Copper Fungicide can help clear those up.

Psuedomonas blight is much more complex. Water-soaked areas will appear along leaf veins and spread rapidly along the leaves. As this blight matures, the affected areas will turn papery and brown or yellow.

The problem with this blight is that the specific species of Psuedomonas bacteria hasn’t been identified, so there’s no treatment established for it yet.

To prevent spread to other plants, you should remove and destroy infected plants. This bacteria may remain in the soil, so dispose of that as well.

Two leaf-spots, alternaria leaf spot and helminthosporium leaf spot, are common on calatheas. Both of these fungal growths result from the leaves being wet for long periods of time.

Avoid overhead watering for your plants. Use Monterey Liquid Copper Fungicide to treat breakouts of these fungal diseases.

Fusarium can infect calatheas as well. This fungal disease causes yellowing and wilting of leaves, and the inside veining of stems can be brownish. This disease develops in the soil itself.

While drench treatments of copper fungicide may be effective to slow down disease spread, the only way to eliminate it entirely is to dispose of the infected soil.

Thoroughly wash all soil off of the fragile plant roots. Sterilize your pot with a solution of 1 part bleach to 9 parts water.

Then replant in sterile soil, and do treatments of copper fungicide once per week for the next month to be sure the disease hasn’t spread.

If your plant’s in overly-wet conditions for too long, it can suffer from root rot. You want your soil to be damp, but not soggy. Ensure it’s well-draining and that you don’t overwater.

The last disease we’re going to cover is the cucumber mosaic virus.

While calatheas will not be killed by this disease, they are carriers for it, and it can be deadly to other plants. Jagged yellow patterns will alternate through your plant’s leaves.

Unfortunately, mosaic viruses have no known cure. If you have other plants that are susceptible, it can spread to them. The only option is to destroy any infected plants and sterilize their pots before use. Do not re-use the soil they were in.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is calathea safe around pets?

A: Yes! Calathea is considered nontoxic to cats and dogs. While I’m not sure about birds, they’re also considered safe for pet rats, and likely are relatively safe for other rodent pets like mice or hamsters.

I don’t encourage you to let your cat eat the calathea, though. Grow some catmint or cat grass instead! But if Fido or Fluffy decides to snack on your houseplant, they shouldn’t have lasting damage from it.

Q: Are Calatheas Prayer Plants?

While the Maranta species is also referred to as the prayer plant, calathea species are often called that name as well. Both fall into the arrowroot prayer plant family, the Marantaceae.

Most Marantas have ovoid leaves rather than the more common spear or lance-shaped leaves of calatheas. The most common one, Maranta leuconeura, is more commonly called a prayer plant than anything else!

However, Calathea species technically are not prayer plants, simply because that designation’s been used for the Maranta species. Since the two are closely-related, people who grow one will often grow the other as well!


Think you’re up to the challenge of caring for your own calathea yet? These tropicals may be finicky, but the resulting plant is worth all the time you’ll spend doting on it. What’s your favorite variety? Let me know down below in the comments!

I’m absolutely thrilled to be able to share all of the great information I’ve accumulated over the years with everyone. No matter if you have a foot of space or an acre, you can grow in it!

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8 thoughts on “Calathea: Caring For The Rattlesnake Plant, Zebra Plant and More

  1. This honestly is the best resource I’ve come across in the course of my extensive research attempting to keep my white fusion alive. Thank you so much!

  2. This article covers Calatheas and their care very well. I enjoyed reading it and listening to the audio. When the time comes for me to write something about my Calathea orbifolia, I will cite this article. Thank you! 🙂

  3. I’ve been looking for expert Calathea growing advice for twenty years. Owned a plant boutique 1970’s. Your site is the best I’ve found by far.
    You’ve done a great job, at least with this section, and just wanted to commend you on a job that was much more than a job well done.

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