Prayer plants get their common name from their habit of folding their leaves up at night, like hands in prayer, and all belong to the Marantaceae family, which includes many species that have become the poster plants of the houseplant world in recent years: Maranta leuconeura, with its rabbit-track leaf blotches, Goeppertia orbifolia (formerly Calathea orbifolia) with its broad leaves striped in silver, Ctenanthe burle-marxii, named after the Brazilian landscape designer, and perhaps most popular of all, Stromanthe thalia ‘Triostar’, which looks as though its green leaves have been daubed with white paint.
Prayer Plant pests: spider mites
A hand lens (or at least a decent magnifying glass) is a vital piece of kit if you, like so many others, become entranced by prayer plants. That’s because they have an enemy that’s invisible to the naked eye: the spider mite. Marantas, goeppertias , stromanthes and ctenanthes are an irresistible draw to this pest, which colonises the backs of the prayer plant leaves and proliferates until the maranta is reduced to a curled-up, web-infested mess. Watch for white grainy debris on the underside of the prayer plant foliage – a sign of the mites’ shedded skin – and treat by wiping the leaves with a damp cloth daily, and increasing humidity around the plant. Spraying with a pesticide and foliar feed will also help. Tackling spider mite is a war of attrition you may never completely win, but it’s worth the battle to have these gorgeous plants in your home.
Where are prayer plants from?
Prayer plants have some of the most dramatic variegation in the houseplant world, with leaves that are spotted, striped and splashed in every possible combination. It’s also a treat to see marantas slowly closing up shop for the day, and a chance to examine the backs of their leaves, which are often as beautiful as the fronts, provided you keep the mites at bay. Most are native to South and Central America, where they live under the dappled shade of the forest canopy.
How to care for your prayer plant
That makes them suitable for lower light situations, as bright sun will fade their leaves. My marantas sit in the darker recesses of a room with a south-facing window: they will tolerate sitting near a north- or east-facing window, but don’t trap prayer plants behind curtains in winter as they abhor cold draughts. Increase air humidity around plants by placing pots on a tray filled with pebbles half-covered with water: this will help prevent the crispy edges that can often mar their paper-thin leaves.
If all this talk of spider mites and humidity is making you nervous to give prayer plants a try, I recommend starting your collection with Goeppertia kegeljanii, which is confusingly known under several different aliases (including Goeppertia bella) and often sold incorrectly as Calathea Musaica. This species is a little tougher than the average prayer plant, seemingly shrugging off spider mites and dry air. Its foliage is less immediately striking than other species, seeming chartreuse from a distance, but get closer and the detail is captivating: tiny parallel lines of green and white that look like the maranta leaf is covered in bar codes.
And once you’ve got one prayer plant, you may find more fall into your basket next time you are at the garden centre or your mouse is hovering over a houseplant website. This isn’t a bad thing, because there’s much to be said for grouping prayer plants together to create a microclimate – and that indoor jungle look that is so desirable. It also makes watering more straightforward: I bring in an old washing up bowl full of rainwater and take the plants out of their cache pots to soak for an hour or two, then drain and return to their usual spots. If you live in a hard water area, use rainwater rather than tap water if you can, as the mineral salts in hard water can affect the health of your prayer plants. When to water? A finger stuck into the rootball up to the knuckle should come out barely damp. With practice, you’ll learn to spot the signs that your prayer plant needs water before the leaves start to curl at the sides – a sign of drought stress.