Caring for Calatheas, the Most Beautiful Low-Light Plants

Most urban dwellers know the struggle of finding the perfect plant that not only adds greenery to your indoor space but also thrives within the conditions that we can provide for it. Beautiful or ornate foliage plants often have restrictive light requirements, leaving us with fewer options.

If you’re not into the architectural shapes of sansevierias, or if you’re tired of how common pothos are, prayer plants—a common name for calathea, maranta, and other marantaceae, which are similar (but not identical) plants—may be the perfect low-light plant for you. (We’ll be talking mostly about calathea, but these tips should do well for any variety of prayer plant.) From dark green velvety leaves to leaves with geometric patterns and maroon undersides, prayer plants fashion some of the most highly-decorated foliage found in nature.

Calathea plants have a reputation for being finicky. Some varieties, such as the white fusion, are known among the plant community as “drama queens.” But that the marantaceae family (which includes calathea and maranta, in addition to stromanthe and many others commercially known as “prayer plants”) is a vast family, with a dizzying amount of varieties for houseplant hobbyists.

Many are much lower maintenance than that infamous white fusion. Many plants are a lost cause once the leaves drop, but most prayer plants are incredibly forgiving, often “coming back to life”—even if you’ve mistreated them for a long time. In proper conditions, the calathea will reward you with fast growth, and endless leaves.

Many prayer plants require lower light than other popular plants, and with the proper care, they bring color, geometry—and movement. Prayer plants open and close depending on the time of day and the available light. Their foliage is attractive on both sides of the leaves, bringing a different vibe at different times of day. In addition, they’re non-toxic. Homes with pets or children need not worry.

The light requirements make this plant an attractive choice for lower light homes, but please note: These plants do poorly in direct sun, which can bleach the leaves. Place your prayer plant in a part of a room that receives low to bright indirect light. As a rule, the darker the foliage—such as with the calathea ornata—the lower the light requirements.

Prayer plants enjoy a humid environment, but many varieties can handle lower levels of humidity. Ideally, they prefer a humidity level of 50 percent or more, with more sensitive varieties requiring higher humidity levels—around 60 percent.

You can increase humidity levels by using a humidifier (which will benefit human inhabitants as well), or by placing their pot over a tray filled with pebbles and water. The pebbles will keep the pot from being submerged in water, and the natural evaporation of the water will help keep the air around the plant moist.

Prayer plants also enjoy being grouped together, which increases the overall humidity. While some might appreciate being misted, take care not to mist them directly on the top of the leaves (or have moisture fall into the tightly raveled straws the new leaves make). Spray from the bottom up, and higher overall humidity is preferred over misting.

Like all houseplants, calathea enjoy filtered or dechlorinated water, and can be a little more demanding than other houseplants. Simply fill your watering can and leave it overnight to dissipate the chlorine. If there are other chemicals in your tap water, try using filtered or distilled water instead.

Calathea enjoy moist soil—but not wet soil. Try a mix of 50 percent potting soil, 20 percent orchid bark, 20 percent charcoal, and 10 percent perlite.

They also dislike being dried out. Every few days, stick a finger in the soil to see if the medium feels dry. If it does, water generously, making sure that excess water has been drained.

This has been debated for a long time, and novice botanists have had success with both. Contrary to the old-school belief that calathea do not do well in terra cotta, these breathable pots help the roots stay moist, but not wet.

Terra cotta wicks away excess moisture, leaving the soil optimally moist. But if you live in a dry place or have a tendency to under-water, consider sticking with a plastic pot.

Make sure any pot has a drainage hole, as excess water can cause root rot.

Don’t be afraid to cut the leaves off to the bottom of the stem—this encourages healthier growth to appear. Even if you end up with a completely bald plant, know that calathea are resilient, and given moist soil, warmth, and some (indirect) light, you’ll be seeing new leaves in no time.

Some low-maintenance and easy calatheas:

Some high-maintenance calatheas, if you want to take on the challenge:

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