A family encompassing over 30 genera and 550 species, the Marantaceae, or Prayer Plant, family contain some of the most varied and stunning plants kept and cultivated indoors. Among the family are the exceptionally popular Calathea, Maranta, Ctenanthe and Stromanthe genera. The foliage of these genera are often decorated with a variety of colours and patterns, which makes them such a collectable within the world of botany.
The majority of this family originate in the American Tropics, dwelling within the rainforests of Central and South America. However, many species have also been found in tropical regions of Asia and Africa.
Their common name, Prayer Plants, comes from their nastic movement of folding inwards each night in response to the lower light, an action called Nyctinasty. The leaves of prayer plants tend to begin in an orientation horizontal to the ground, or whatever orientation best faces the sun. As dusk descends, they perform their nightly ritual changing their orientation to point directly upwards.
The movement was first observed in 324 B.C. by Androsthenes of Thasos, a companion of Alexander the Great where he observed the orientation of the leaves of the Tamarind Tree change from day to night.
Since this initial observation, many theories have been put forward as to why this occurs. One of the earliest of these was that of Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus who hypothesized in his book Somnus Plantarum that Nyctinasty was a physically observable sign that a plant was sleeping, but this was quickly and rather widely refuted.
"Their common name, Prayer Plants, comes from their nastic movement of folding inwards each night in response to the lower light, an action called Nyctinasty."
Since then a variety of more realistic hypothesis have been proposed. A paper titled The functions of foliar nyctinasty: a review and hypothesis published in 2018, compiled these theories and discussed each. These theories included ideas relating to maintaining the temperature of the plant at night (a theory proposed by Charles Darwin in 1880), removing water from leaf surfaces, making them less noticeable to herbivores and facilitating hunting of these herbivores by carnivorous predators by reducing the plants overall size giving herbivores less places to hide, and less herbivores means less of the plant can be eaten.
Ultimately, these theories remain exactly that, theories. Nyctinasty has been observed in over 38 different families of plants and 200 genera, in plants with a variety of different forms hailing from vastly different places all around the world.
Yet this uncertainty only adds to their magic and highlights just how exceptionally versatile and adaptable the flora and fauna that we live alongside are.
Caring for your Prayer Plant
With several different genera and hundreds of species, care can vary slightly from one plant to another. However, many commonalities run throughout these plants, particularly among the more common Calatheas, Marantas, Ctenanthes and Stromanthes grown as indoor plants.
Taking into consideration their tropical origins is paramount when it comes to gaining a genuine understanding on how to care for these plants. The vast majority hail from the tropical rainforests of Central and South America, where humidity is high and rainfall is frequent. Being relatively small in size, they tend to dwell on the dense canopy of trees above forming small clumps of foliage or creeping along the floor.
"Taking into consideration their tropical origins is paramount when it comes to gaining a genuine understanding on how to care for these plants."
Finding balance can take some trial and error with these plants but is very achievable. Being forrest floor dwellers, these indoor plants are accustomed to filtered sunlight as it passes through the canopy above. This would generally be referred to as somewhere between bright indirect and moderate sunlight. To achieve this situate your plant in a south or west facing room but in a spot that is a couple of meters away from the window. In these spots sun rays should hit the leaves of the plant but should be less intense than if it was in a spot right in front of the window.
As mentioned, this can take a little bit of trail and error and understanding the signs of too much sun and not enough sun will help you achieve this. Generally, Prayer Plants receiving too much sun will produce new leaves, but this new growth may have less, or be entirely absent of, pink, purple and maroon tones that make these indoor plant so iconic. Plants that are not receiving enough light will tend to produce leaves at a much lower rate and any new leaves they do produce may be shorter or smaller than the ones that came before. This can occur anyway in the early spring but if this is something that you notice in late spring and into the summer months consider moving your plant to a brighter spot or closer to a window.
When it comes to watering there are two things to take into consideration:
The first is the type of water you use. Tap water tends to contain minerals such as calcium, potassium and magnesium. These minerals can pose a problem for your Prayer Plants as they can struggle to process them. This can result in the tips of the leaves browning as these minerals accumulate. Where possible, watering these plants with rain water or distilled water particularly if you live in an area with particularly hard water.
Secondly, you must consider watering frequency. Prayer Plants tend to prefer soil that is kept relatively moist so checking your plant frequently is best. Water once the top 1-2 inches dry out, particularly during the warmer summer months.
Their tropical origins also make them appreciators of higher than average humidity. Situating your Prayer Plant in a humid environments, such as near kitchen sinks, or taking actions to increase humidity around the plant are beneficial. Misting, dishes of moist Lava Rocks, or even small humidifiers can also aid in this.
Making fertilizing a part of your care routine during the growing season will promote quicker and more prosperous growth. A liquid fertilizer added to your watering roughly once per month from March to September tends to be best.
For the most part, Division tends to be the best method of propagating most prayer plants. Plants can often be separated from the mother plant by dividing the rhizomes in the compost.
Marantas are the only members of the Prayer Plant family that can be propagated using stem cuttings. The plant can be cut below a node and placed in water until new roots are produced.
Child & Pet Friendly
Marantaceae are a wonderful plant to grow in homes with children and pets as they are non-toxic. Their ornate foliage is not only exceptional in the eyes of adults, but will draw in the curiosity of children too, inspiring them to get involved in the world of botany.
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Clay: The Contemporary Botany Company
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Words by: Clay: The Contemporary Botany Company