Zebra Plant Care: Growing Aphelandra Squarrosa At Home

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Zebra plant (Aphelandra squarrosa) is a finicky houseplant. It’s grown for its vividly-striped foliage and beautiful golden flowers.

This exotic is a beautiful option for indoor gardening, but only if you know the right tips. Let’s go over the proper care for your zebra plant and prepare you for what you’ll need to do!

Good Products For Zebra Plant Growers:

Zebra Plant Overview

Aphelandra Squarrosa

Common Name(s) Zebra plant, Saffron spike zebra plant
Scientific Name Aphelandra squarrosa
Family Acanthaceae
Origin Southern and southeastern Brazil
Height Up to 6 feet in wild, 1-2 feet in containers
Light Bright, indirect light
Water Keep soil moist but not soggy
Temperature 68-75°F
Humidity High
Soil Well-drained potting mixture with a high peat moss content.
Fertilizer Quick-release, balanced liquid fertilizer
Propagation Cuttings or air layering
Pests Whiteflies, aphids, mealybugs, fungus gnats. Also susceptible to botrytis blight, leaf spots, stem rot and root rot (all fungal in origin).

All About Zebra Plants

Many Zebra Plants
Zebra plants are popular for greenhouse growing. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dark, blackish-green glossy leaves with white veins give the zebra plant its name. Just for its foliage alone, it’s a delight to grow!

But when it blooms, it absolutely shines. From a bract that’s yellow or orange in coloration explodes many yellow blossoms. These flower spikes can reach up to 4″ in length and are beautiful.

Originating in southern Brazil, aphelandra squarrosa is truly a jungle plant. It likes the humid climate and covered conditions found in that habitat. In its natural environment, it can act as a climbing plant, but in containers it usually stays under 2′ tall.

It can be quite a feat to coax the zebra plant into flowering, with at most two flowering sessions a year. Still, even when it’s not in bloom it’s lovely, and well worth the effort!

But Is There Another Zebra Plant?

There is, actually! Calathea zebrina, one of the calathea plant types, is also referred to by the common name of “zebra plant”.

But don’t let that fool you. Aphelandra squarrosa and calathea zebrina aren’t related. Calathea zebrina has wider lines on lighter-colored leaves. And, of course, it doesn’t flower!

Most people refer to aphelandra squarrosa as the zebra plant, though. It’s only one variety of calatheas that shares the name.

There’s a couple succulents that also masquerade as the zebra plant. Haworthiopsis fasciata and Haworthiopsis attenuata are both South African succulents, and they look somewhat like aloe in their growth pattern. These are only occasionally referred to as zebra plants.

Zebra Plant Care

Zebra plant
A good view of the leaves and opened flowers of the zebra plant. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aphelandra squarrosa is one of the more difficult houseplants to care for. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible!

You’ll need to give it a bit more love than ivy, pothos, cast iron plant or other easier types. But with that devotion comes true reward.

Light & Temperature

Zebra plants thrive when given bright, indirect light. While it can tolerate a bit of shade, it won’t flower as often or as long if it’s not given enough light. Be sure to avoid direct sunlight, as it can scorch your plant’s leaves.

The perfect temperature for growing your zebra plant is between 65-80 degrees. Happily, this coincides with most people’s preferred indoor temperature range!

Never allow your zebra plant to spend long in temperatures below 55 degrees. It can cause damage to the plant’s beautiful foliage.

If you’re trying to grow your zebra plant outdoors, be sure that it’s in a sheltered location. It needs light, but not direct sunlight. Placement under a thick tree canopy or porch should work well. Growing in a greenhouse is an option as well to increase the humidity.

Water & Humidity

Sensitive to over and under watering, zebra plants can be a smidge tricky to maintain. Keep the soil consistently moist throughout the active growing season, and stay watchful.

In the winter months, you can allow the soil to dry out a bit between waterings. The ideal for those cooler months is a barely-moist environment.

For best results, use filtered water that’s just over room temperature. This mimics the temperature of a typical rain.

Your zebra plant is a humidity hog! It prefers humidity around 60-70%. This can pose a problem indoors, especially if it’s near a vent.

Keep your plant out of direct lines of vents and away from heaters. Mist its leaves, but only when you feel that the moisture will evaporate quickly. Try to avoid lots of standing water on the leaves whenever possible.

You can also place a tray of water with some pebbles beneath it. The pebbles keep the pot out of the water, preventing overwatering. The water will provide ambient humidity around the plant.

If all else fails, turn on a humidifier to provide cool, damp air nearby. This keeps your plant happy and healthy!

Soil

Zebra plant flower closeup
A closeup of the aphelandra squarrosa flower. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Aphelandra squarrosa likes rich soil that retains water, but drains well.

If you prefer to use potting mixes, I recommend going for an African violet potting mix. There’s enough water-absorbing material in those to keep the soil moist.

Prefer to make your own potting soil? No problem! A blend I use blends 1 part coarse sand or perlite to 1 part garden soil and 2 parts peat moss. You can opt for coconut coir instead of peat if you’d like. Leaf mold also works wonderfully.

Your pH level should be in the moderately acid range (5.6-6.0) for best growth. Try to avoid going too acidic on your soil for this plant. Be sure to test your soil pH to keep it in the right range.

Fertilizer

Zebra plants are hungry little things. Those flowers take a lot of food to produce! During the growing seasons in spring and summer, aim for feeding every 1-2 weeks.

It’s best to use a water-soluble quick-release plant food to feed your aphelandra squarrosa. Aim for a balanced fertilizer blend, diluted per the manufacturer’s instructions. Don’t fertilize in the winter months.

Repotting

Don’t rush to repot your zebra plant every year. In fact, it grows well even if it’s a bit rootbound! Most types will grow well and flower in a 5-6″ pot.

If you do decide to repot, do so in the spring before the plant comes out of its winter dormancy. Use a pot that’s only 1″ larger than its existing pot. Remove as much soil from the roots as possible without damaging them, and repot in fresh potting mix.

Pruning

Keep a watchful eye on your flower bract. As flowers die off, it’s important to remove them fast. If left in place too long, the lower leaves may start to droop and fall off. This will leave behind only stems with tufts of leaves at the top.

You can prune the stem and leaves back once the bract dies to a pair of leaves at the plant’s base. This will encourage a bushier growth pattern in the spring.

Propagation

Potted zebra plant with flowers
A beautiful example of a zebra plant beginning to flower. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Zebra plant propagation is pretty simple, and can be done via air layering or stem cuttings.

Cuttings should be placed in a mix of perlite and moist peat. Cover them in plastic to retain moisture. These cuttings should be 4-6″ in length. Place them in an area that’s 70-80°F and in indirect sunlight.

To air layer, select a healthy stem and remove leaves in the center of the stem. Be sure you have a couple inches of bare stem available. Then, make an incision about halfway into the stem.

Place a toothpick in the incision to keep it open, and coat the area with rooting hormone. Wrap moistened sphagnum moss around the injured spot. Secure it in place with plastic wrap. Tie the ends of the plastic wrap to the stem to prevent moisture from escaping.

In a month to a month and a half, you should be able to see roots appearing in the moss. You can then cut the stem and repot, but be sure to keep humidity high until the plant is established.

Zebra Plant Flower Production

It’s tricky to coax a bloom out of this type of plant. The zebra plant flower often is already in place when you find it for sale. How do you get your zebra plant to flower again?

Begin by focusing on the plant’s foliage and keeping it alive through the winter. Move the plant to a cooler location for two months in winter. As spring comes, bring it back to a warmer location with lots of bright lighting.

It takes about three months of bright, indirect light before your plant will produce a flower. The intensity of the light is what spurs blooming. The length of the day makes no real difference!

With enough light, fertilizer, and humidity, your plant should bloom in three months. Cut the flower bract back once it finishes flowering. You may be able to entice another bloom out in the fall if your timing is good.

If the water level, humidity, or lighting are off, your plant may not flower. It’s gorgeous as a foliage plant, so that may not be a problem!

Problems

Zebra plant flowers
View of some newly-opening zebra plant flowers. Source: kaiyanwong223

Is the Zebra Plant Toxic?

Zebra plant isn’t toxic, but it can be a skin irritant. It’s best to prune while wearing gloves to avoid getting the sap on your skin. Wash and sterilize your pruning shears to remove any leftover sap once done.

The ASPCA says it’s not toxic to cats, dogs, or horses. Even so, you’ll want to put your aphelandra out of their reach. It may irritate their mouths or paws. Better to be safe than sorry!

Growing Problems

If the leaves of your plant begin to curl or become crinkled, your plant’s getting too much light. This actually can happen! It’s most common in situations where your zebra plant’s experiencing direct sun. Move it to a shadier location so it can recover.

Tip wilt can occur if your potting mix is too dry. This usually happens when you’ve been lightly watering it. The top and sides of the pot have enough moisture, but the center doesn’t.

To avoid tip wilt, do a heavy watering at least once a month. Make sure that the growing medium is completely damp, and allow excess water to drain off.

Leaf-wilt and leaf-drop can occur in multiple situations. If the soil is too wet or too dry, lower leaves can wilt and fall off. If it’s over-fertilized, lower leaves can wilt and fall off. Finally, as the flower bract dies off, lower leaves can wilt and fall off. It’s tricky!

To figure out how to handle this, you’ll have to use the process of elimination. Keep a watchful eye on your zebra plant’s soil, and be sure it stays moist but not soggy or dry. If your watering technique is good, reduce the fertilizer a bit by diluting it more. And be sure to trim off dead flower bracts quickly.

Pests

Whitefly infestation is a possibility. These tiny flying insects will suck on the plant sap, leaving yellow dots on the leaves.

To combat these, remove and destroy badly-infested plant growth. Use yellow sticky traps to catch adults. An insecticidal soap will also help.

Insecticidal soaps also work wonders against aphididae. These pests, commonly called aphids, will also suck on your plant’s leaves. Again, remove badly-infested leaves as necessary.

Fluffy white mealybugs may become an issue as well. These cling to the leaves, and can leave similar damage to whiteflies. A cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol can help you to remove them. Prevent their return by spraying down the leaves of your plant with neem oil.

Finally, although they’re least common, fungus gnats find the moist, peaty soil appealing. Sticky traps will trap the adults. A soil drench with neem oil can help wipe out larvae.

Diseases

Potted zebra plant
Even without flowers, the zebra plant can be a beautiful houseplant. Source: dayofthedreamweavers

Because zebra plants love high humidity, you can run into many fungal issues. Here’s a short list of diseases you may encounter.

Botrytis blight can form along the edges of leaves, and can contribute to leaf collapse. Spores will form on the leaf material as well, making a gray-tan patch on the underside.

Corynespora and myrothecium leaf spots are both common. Both of these fungi cause water-soaked lesions on leaves. Myrothecium also produces spores in concentric circles on the underside of leaves.

With leaf spots and botrytis blight, your best bet is to use a copper-based fungicidal spray. This may need to be applied multiple times to kill off the fungi. Avoid overhead watering, and mist only when you’re sure the moisture will evaporate.

Phytophthora stem rot creates black, mushy lesions on the stems at the soil line. In time, the plant will collapse due to the damage. This usually happens if water can splash infected soil up onto the stem line.

There’s no cure for phytophthora stem rot, so your best bet is prevention. Ensure you have well-draining soil, and avoid splashing soil onto stems or leaves. Do not allow water to stand around the base of plants.

And finally, we come to pythium root rot. This fungal rot usually impacts weaker plants, causing the roots to turn black and mushy. In time, the upper part of the plant will yellow, wilt, and die off.

Prevention is the key for pythium fungi as well. Overly-wet conditions can create the perfect environment for this fungi to thrive. Avoid soggy soil, instead opting to maintain a moist but not overly wet consistency.

Frequently Asked Questions

Zebra Plant Flowers

Q. My zebra plant has brown edges on the leaves, like they are burned a bit. What is happening?

A. The two most likely causes of brown leaf tips on your zebra plant are too much sun and over-fertilizing. Remember, they light bright but indirect light, not full sun. If you are giving them the right amount of light, you can try dialing back how often you fertilize.


Tricky to grow? Only a little. But the end result is so worth it. Those golden flowers and the patterned leaves make for a beautiful houseplant! Have you grown zebra plant before? If so, did you have success? Tell your zebra plant stories in the comment section!


The Green Thumbs Behind This Article:

Kevin Espiritu
Founder

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