Maranta and its close relatives are fantastic foliage plants that are a staple of the indoor plant section in garden centres. They have striking markings on their leaves, fabulous contrasting colours between main leaf colour and veins, and some have the interesting feature of the leaves closing at night, earning them the nickname the "prayer plant".
The Maranta group is made up of true Maranta as well as Calathea, Ctenanthe and Stromanthe. Maranta and Stromanthe are low-growing plants, with none reaching more than 20cm tall. They are ideal for creating groups on a windowsill.
Calathea and Ctenanthe are taller. As a whole the group are not the easiest plants to grow and are not recommended for beginners. However, the best-known species M. leuconeura var. kerchoveana Award of Garden Merit (AGM) — the prayer plant — and M. leuconeura var. erythroneura AGM (the Herringbone Plant) are considered quite easy to grow. The other genera are said to be more tricky.
Calathea zebrina AGM is highly sought after for its leaves, patterned with zebra-like stripes of light and dark green and with a velvety touch. Its leaves are held out horizontally or curl over at the ends, so you get the occasional surprising glimpse of the purple underside. C. lancifolia AGM, the intriguingly named "rattlesnake plant", is another popular choice. It grows tall with vivid green, wavy edged upright leaves, beautifully marked with green spots, and has purple undersides.
There are also some excellent cultivars out there that are very popular in garden centres. Stromanthe sanguinea ‘Triostar’ PBR has gorgeous green and white variegated leaves, with a striking reddy-pink underside. As a general rule they all need protection from direct sunlight, cold draughts, high humidity and warm temperatures in winter.
Direct sunlight can lead to scorched leaves, the foliage colour fading and they can develop unwelcome blotches or patches. Minimum winter temperatures for Maranta should be 10°C and Calathea 15°C. They prefer an even temperature all year round. Sudden fluctuations can be harmful. They like a rich, peat-based potting soil that drains well. The compost should be kept moist at all times, though watering should be reduced in the winter.
One of the main growing tips for the Maranta group is to keep humidity high. This can be achieved by misting the leaves regularly, but other more pointed methods can be used, such as placing them near a humidity tray or humidifier. Young or small varieties can even be kept in a bottle garden, which is an attractive way for them to be marketed in garden centres. Plants are best repotted every two years in spring.
They can be propagated at the same time by division. These new divisions should be kept warm and moist for a few weeks until new growth begins.
Pests known to affect the Maranta group are many of the typical unwelcome guests on indoor plants — aphids, mealybug and spider mite. What the specialists say Jason Jones, owner, www.houseplantsexpert.com "While Maranta is a genus of plant species they are also part of a family named Marantaceae.
The Marantaceae family includes the Calathea, Ctenanthe, Stromanthe and Maranta. The Maranta and Calathea are the most popular plants for growing indoors. "Plants from the Ctenanthe and Stromanthe genus are more difficult to grow, have less availability of suppliers and fewer species within the genus, which is why they’re not as popular to grow as ornamentals. "These are flowering plants. However, this is not why they are grown indoors.
The flowers are non showy for most of them and many will not flower when grown indoors. They’re primarily grown for their different types of patterned and shaped leaves, and the leaves also have different textures. "Two popular species grown indoors you will find sold in many garden stores are C. zebrina (the zebra plant) and C. lancifolia (the rattlesnake plant). Both look very different in terms of leaf patterns and shape.
The zebra plant has ovate zebra-patterned leaves with a velvety surface and the rattlesnake has slim longer leaves that grow in an upright fashion, displaying their purple undersides. "Many plants from the Maranta family may have the common name of prayer plant. This is because the leaves close during the evening and open in the morning, similar to a person folding their hands in prayer.
"Caring for plants from the Maranta group is reasonably easy for the popular species. However, a few conditions and needs must be adhered to for them to grow well. In terms of light they are best suited to bright light, without direct sunlight that damages the leaves. Avoid dry air and mist the leaves or find ways to increase air moisture because they thrive in high humidity.
"Soak the soil when watering and water frequently, keeping the soil moist during summer and water less during winter. Avoid sudden cold temperature drops, which can be fatal if the soil is very moist."
Alison Murfet, garden centre assistant, Thompsons Garden Centre, Welling
"Of all the foliage houseplants on offer at our garden centre, those from the Maranta genus are consistently among the most popular. Otherwise known as the prayer plant family, this group originally hails from tropical Central and South America and the West Indies.
"Yet despite their exotic look, members of this genus are perfectly at home over here in the UK. When customers tell us they’re looking for a houseplant that’s easy to care for yet striking enough to feature as a focal point in a room, these plants usually fit the bill. "All they require is a slightly shaded spot away from direct sunlight and enough warmth to stop unsightly brown splotches from appearing on the leaves. Other than that, they need very little routine care — just a water once per week on average.
Since we have a glass roof in the garden centre this does increase during the warmer summer months, when everything has a tendency to dry out faster than the speed of light.
"We’ve found that they lend themselves particularly well to being displayed in a mixed group — with some Baby Bio near at hand as a pick-me-up — with our banana plants as together they exude a tropical look.
"Over the past few years we’ve seen a number of interesting new cultivars turning up in our centre. Among these, Stromanthe sanguinea ‘Triostar’, with its variegated leaves of green, white and pink; Calathea ‘Wavestar’, recognisable for textured, wavy foliage; and Calathea ‘Medallion’, with its almost hand-painted look are best-sellers. If a particularly large, eye-catching specimen is sought after, then the signature striped leaves of C. zebrina offer an attractive option.
"One quirky feature that most have in common, and the reason for the ‘prayer plant’ nickname, is that the leaves of this plant will unfold during daylight hours and close up in the evening, often leading some uninformed customers to believe there’s something wrong with the plant. They are also said to help purify the air by removing toxins."
Species and varieties
Maranta leuconeura var. kerchoveana AGM (H1B) is a low-growing evergreen plant with interesting light-green foliage, grey-green veins and brown blotches each side of the midrib. Height: 30cm.
M. leuconeura var. erythroneura AGM (H1B) (syn. M. tricolor) is a low-growing, evergreen plant that has elliptic, dark olive-green leaves with a bright-green central zone and bright-red midrib and main veins. Height: 30cm.
M. leuconeura massangeana has a gorgeous contrasting dark-green to black leaf with white veins and silvery blotches along the midrib. Height: 30cm. Calathea lancifolia (syn. C. insignis) is also known as the rattlesnake plant. It is an evergreen perennial, forming a clump with undulate, lance-shaped pale-green leaves with dark patches either side of the midrib. Small yellow flowers in short spikes in summer. Height: 60cm.
C. makoyana AGM (H1B) is also known as the "peacock plant" or "cathedral windows" because of the lovely foliage. The leaves are pale-green with a dark-green feathered effect from the middle of the leaf to the outer edges. They have pinkish-red undersides. Place in moderate light. Height: 2ft.
C. roseopicta AGM (H1B), the rose-painted Calathea, has green elliptic-oblong leaves that display pinkish coloured stripes along and from the midrib that turn white as the plant matures. Leaves grow at the top of short stalks and fold up slightly at night. Height: 25cm.
C. ‘Wavestar’ has fantastic textured, lanceolate leaves with an undulating edge. Height: 85cm.
C. zebrina AGM (H1B) forms a clump of long-stalked light-green leaves, regularly marked with dark green each side of the midrib. Height: 1m.
Ctenanthe oppenheimiana ‘Tricolor’ AGM (H1B) is a bushy plant with lance-shaped leaves, heavily variegated with cream and silvery-green. Height and spread: 50cm-1m. Stromanthe sanguinea ‘Triostar’ PBR has variegated green and white leaves with a reddy-pink underside. Height: 60-90cm.
Thank you to Floramedia, which supplied the images for this article from its photo library www.floramedia-picture-library.com