What is a prayer plant?

Calatheas, better known as ‘prayer plants,’ are all members of the genus Maranta, to which genus Calathea is closely-related. If you’re new to prayer plants and humidity-loving Calatheas, we’ll walk you through where they come from and how to care for them. 

Calathea care indoors

Words by The Sill

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Calatheas, better known as ‘prayer plants,’ are all members of the genus Maranta, to which genus Calathea is closely-related. If you’re new to prayer plants and humidity-loving Calatheas, we’ll walk you through where they come from and how to care for them. 

Two most common species or cultivars are Calathea veitchiana ‘Medallion’ (Medallion calathea) and Calathea lancifolia (Rattlesnake calathea). Calathea leaves are used in Brazil for handicraft and food wrapping. Because of the diversity of the leaf shapes, baskets are weaved with the lanceolate leaves, and food is wrapped with the wider leaves. The colorful leaf markings of most Calatheas make them economically important as houseplants, and their popularity has been growing with the development of new cultivars.

Say a little prayer for you

Marantaceae, named so for the tendency of plants in this family to droop, or ‘pray’ at night. The daily movements of the plants leaves is known as nyctinasty. Various plants in this family move their leaves up at nighttime, and lower them in the daytime in accordance to a circadian rhythm. They move their leaves by changing the water pressure in their pulvini, the swollen nodes at the base of the leaf, along the leaf stalk (petiole). It is believed that these movements are meant to follow the sun’s movement in the sky in order to maximize light absorption.

Like members of Oxalidaceae and Fabaceae, these plants have enlarged pulvini (singular - pulvinus), which are fattened joint-like structures on the leaf petioles. When the leaves are to be raised, the cells within these structures swell with water, due to signalling from Pfr (a plant signalling molecule) and solute transport. Pfr is created from Pr, when the plant receives with red light from the sun. Pfr is the active form, whereas Pr is the inactive form, created when the plant receives residual far-red light. Each is named after the wavelength of light which converts it. It is through the Pr/Pfr cycles that the plant is able to tell when it is daytime.

These rhizomatous perennial herbs are native to moist or swampy tropical forests, particularly in the Americas but also in Africa and Asia. Members of the family vary from plants with slender, reedlike stalks to leafy spreading herbs to dense bushes nearly 2 m (about 6.5 feet) high. They have rhizomes, which are usually white, and some species are ethnobotanically important. The most well-known species in the family is arrowroot, Maranta arundinacea, native to the Caribbean, is grown in parts of the Caribbean, Australasia, and sub-Saharan Africa for its easily digestible starch known as arrowroot. Various species of Calathea, Maranta, and Stromanthe are grown for their ornamental foliage. Some Calathea species have edible tubers, and others produce wax, some of which are harvested and used, like, Calathea lutea, grown to make waterproof baskets because of its durable, waxy leaves.

Did you know?

Robert Brown, the same naturalist who described Brownian Motion, as later described by Einstein, had travelled the world collecting samples of various plants, and had established the Prayer Plant family, Marantaceae. He had chosen the name Marantaceae, likely after the indigenous word “Maranta”, which refers to edible arrowroots. 

Learn how to care for a Calathea as a houseplant here

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