While I have grown lots of plants indoors in my time, I’d never grown what I now think is one of the easiest houseplants – calathea, also known as prayer plant. Now the closely related maranta had been a favourite of mine since an aunt gave me a division of her plant back in the 1970s. And I’d always found that incredibly tolerant of low light and quite cool indoor conditions. But calatheas? For some reason, although I knew about them, they’d never graced my windowsills.
What is the prayer plant
To return to the Maranta leuconeura, I had one plant of it growing in a bottle garden for over 10 years where it thrived and overtook everything else in that enclosed world. And I loved it for its green leaves that unrolled from below the compost, intriguingly blotched and veined with brown. Once fully expanded, they also stood to attention every night as darkness fell, which is obviously where the the common name of prayer plant came from.
Then, a couple of years ago, I discovered Calathea ‘Network’ in the garden shop at Kilver Court, Somerset. The plant was a revelation. I was bewitched by its extraordinary leaves, patterned in a shades of green, which put me in mind of bar codes or the Dazzle Camouflage painted on ships in the two World Wars. I bought a plant of it then and there.
How to look after the prayer plant
The fascinating thing about the pattern on Calathea ‘Network’ is that it makes the foliage appear as if it is slightly blurred and held at odd angles. Although stiffer than those of maranta, the leaves emerge from the soil in the same rolled form, to unfurl and ‘pray’ at night as well. But it is the sheer length of the leaf stalks and the size of the ‘paddles’ which they carry that gives this particular form of calathea such presence. It’s a beefy customer and no mistake.
Originating from the forest floor of tropical South and Central America, calatheas like moderate warmth, humidity and diffuse sunlight. Give them those same conditions indoors and they’ll thrive. I’ve got mine in the shower room, away from the radiator and direct sun on the windowsill, but close enough to the window to get decent levels of light. It loves it, and must have grown twelve new leaves since I’ve had it.
When does calathea need watering
My plant gets watered only once a week in the summer, and once a fortnight in the winter. I simply fill the sink with tepid (just warm) water, and plunge the pot in it up to the rim. It sits in there for about 15 minutes until the air stops bubbling out of the compost, and then it is lifted out and put on the soap niche to drain. All this on the allotted morning, while I’m in the shower and before I clean my teeth. The plant then goes back into its decorative pot cover. In common with all of my houseplants, it is never left sitting in water.
It has been fed once with some ‘leafy vegetable’ fertiliser – ok, it was all I had to hand – in about July last year, and that’s it. The plant seems to love both me and where I’ve chosen to put it. And so now I’m a calathea convert, on the look out for others in the tribe. These plants bring a much-needed touch of the tropics indoors on the dullest of winter days. What more could you want?