Care Diary: The Prayer Plant; Maranta leuconeura

maranta marisela

Written ByJen Greene

Posted: November 18, 2020

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The Prayer Plant – genus Maranta

You either love these or hate them. Some people find them to be extremely challenging to grow houseplants, while others have no problem with them.

I’ve found them to be rewarding, beautiful plants that are generally forgiving once you understand their needs and general growth habits. While I’ve definitely killed a few over the years (sorry, maranta plants in the sky, I learned your care needs too late), for the last couple years I’ve actually done quite well with them. I have four types, all of the Maranta leuconeura species: standard green, red, variegated, and Marisela (I sometimes also see this labeled “lemon lime”).

I am not lumping in any calatheas with this post, as I find them to not quite be the same in terms of care. I’ve had my Marantas for a couple years now, and have gone through multiple cycles of their care and appearance. I’ve repotted them, propagated them, scorched them, underwatered them, and pretty much have thrown nearly anything you can think of at them and they’re all still alive. Here’s how I care for mine:

Potting and Soil For Your Maranta

Depending on which Instagram account you follow, Facebook group you’re in, or even the various books or articles out there, you’ve probably heard conflicting information about when (or if) to repot to your maranta fresh from the store or nursery. Soil recipes also seem to vary wildly.

Marantas come from the tropics of Central and South America, as well as the West Indies. The most common species is Maranta leuconeura, and its originally from Brazilian tropical forests. It grows through rhizomes, which means that the plant sends out dense root clumps, or root stalks, and new leaves emerge from the mini-bulb looking clumps. It’s these rhizomes that make repotting a maranta potentially challenging – you don’t want to damage the rhizomes or their delicate supporting roots!

maranta marisela

My Maranta “Marisela” when I first brought her home

Marantas at nurseries or those you get at the local grocery store are typically grown in a peat moss soil, which is easy for a nursery to water and maintain. Plants are typically watered well, with nutrients in the water if needed, and the soil is thoroughly flushed on a regular basis. This meant moisture in the soil never got stagnant, and combined with plenty of light, humidity, and nutrients, the plants were able to take the water and fertilizer and throw it all into growth. For you at home, however, conditions are highly unlikely to be nearly so perfect, which means you’ll want to repot your maranta in to more home-appropriate soil pretty soon after taking it home.

I have had excellent results using quality bagged soil blends, such as Happy Frog from Fox Farms, although a bit of Miracle Grow did fine when mixed with a little extra orchid bark and perlite. I prefer to avoid Miracle Grow and similar big-brand types of soil as it pretty often is just peat moss with fertilizer granules mixed it, along with varying degrees of perlite. If Miracle Grow or similar is all you can find, I suggest mixing it with an extra 20% perlite and 20% small size orchid bark for better long term health of your plant. Perlite plus orchid bark should improve drainage and increase the rate at which your soil dries, especially if you repot your maranta into a terra cotta pot. You’ll want to aim for soil that dries out in about a week or so, which ensures your maranta doesn’t sit with soggy roots for too long.

When repotting, carefully remove your maranta from its pot, and gently remove existing soil. You’ll probably want to use your fingers, rather than a garden rake or tool, so you can be as gentle as possible as you dislodge the dirt. Your goal is to remove as much soil as possible without damaging the roots! If you have to choose between breaking roots and leaving dirt stuck in the inner parts of the plant, just let the old dirt stay there. If you’re feeling particularly determined, you can use a bucket of water to wash off the soil. For folks with high value plant collections, you can (and probably should) finish off your root rinse with a dunk in a dilute hydrogen peroxide solution. Using 3% solution, mix a rinse of about 1 cup peroxide to 2 cups water, and use it as a final dunk. This will help kill pests and disease around the roots, and insure you’re not introducing anything nasty to your main collection.

The Real Deal With Water and Humidity for Marantas

Marantas have an often repeated reputation of needing high humidity, which is…sort of true. They definitely do better with higher humidity, but our home is typically in the 40 – 50% range, and my marantas put out gorgeous, lush growth. I can distinctly tell when we have dry spells, however, as my plants will crisp up at the ends of their leaves after a day or two of exceptionally dry weather. You can either be upset about it, or accept that unless you’re growing plants in a greenhouse, this is just what’s going to happen sometimes.

maranta rabbit tracks

This is my green maranta “rabbit tracks” showing some new perfect leaves, and some with crispy edges from a recent dry spell.

The other reason for crispy leaf edges is typically water quality. With hard water or heavily softened water, the dissolved minerals and/or salts can make your maranta pretty unhappy; they’re rainforest plants accustomed to plentiful rainfall. If you’re seeing crispy leaf edges and your home’s humidity is around 40 – 50%, I’d consider your water quality next. Watering using filtered water, like a Brita filter, can help, and you can also help your plant by taking it into the shower and watering it until the water is running out of the bottom of the pot. Even if you’re using filtered water, I’d still do a shower flush every month or so, especially if you are also using any fertilizer.

If you’re using a Brita filter or something similar, don’t forget to swap out your filter cartridges! If you’re using filtered water but still see leaf issues, maybe you need to replace the filter cartridge. If it’s been more than 6 months since you changed cartridges, 1) ew and 2) swap your filter cartridge!!

If you need to increase humidity for your maranta, get a humidifier – plain and simple. Spritzing your plant’s leaves won’t do a whole heck of a lot, as it doesn’t keep ambient humidity up any significant amount for any significant length of time. You can pick up a simple thermometer/hygrometer from Amazon for $10 and use that to check your average humidity around your plants. If you need to increase humidity, you need something that will put moisture into the air over a period of time, not just a spray once or twice a day.

I learned about this from keeping reptiles and tropical amphibians, rather than plants – many snakes and lizards can’t shed their skin if ambient humidity is too low, and to increase it, you have to add materials to their enclosure that hold moisture and evaporate slowly. Misting the enclosure helps, but for long term humidity increases, you also have to block off air flow so the humid air stays in the cage, or use a fogger/humidifier to routinely add water vapor to the enclosure. For an example of what “high humidity” should feel like compared to your home, think of the last time you walked into a greenhouse or tropical exhibit at the zoo, and how thick and muggy the air felt. That’s what your plant (and tropical reptiles/amphibians) want – and that’s definitely not what your house feels like, even if you spray the plant’s leaves every morning!

Fortunately, like I said, marantas will generally be okay without a lot of extra effort in the humidity department, especially if you cart it into the shower for a thorough watering and humidity bath every so often. This type of extra effort means that marantas aren’t exactly the easiest plants possible to care for, just a bit more effort than say, a pothos.

How often should you water your plant? I’ll discuss that along with the lighting and fertilizer in the next section, as they are all intertwined.

Lighting and Fertilizer for Marantas

How often you water and fertilize your maranta is heavily dependent on how much light it gets. While they are described as “low light” plants, I find them to need only slightly less light than a monstera does for best growth. When talking about light, it’s important to have a shared vocabulary, as our eyes are quite honestly terrible at measuring light intensity. Our eyeballs just aren’t made for that.

I use a light meter that measures light in lux; you can also download apps or get light meters that measure in foot candles. Google has a built in lux to foot candle converter, so you can just type “lux to foot candles” or vice versa. When it comes to your indoor plants, the amount of light they get is heavily impacted by how close they are to your windows, which way the windows face, and time of year. My house is quite dark, and was originally designed with sky lights, so as soon as you get even just a few feet away from a window, the light drops dramatically.

Below is my variegated maranta by one of our south facing windows, about a foot away from the window itself, with winter light intensity and in the morning before light has fully entered that window. 930 lux = 86 foot candles; that’s too dim if that was the most light the plant was going to get all day!

maranta lighting intensity

I’ve measured light intensity from these windows, as well as other areas of our house, during different hours of the day and I know this particular window will peak at about 10,400 lux (966 foot candles) where this plant is sitting, and it’ll stay there for a few hours before decreasing back down. You can tell that this is a light level the plant likes due to the plentiful growth and dark spots of the dark green pattern. When the plant isn’t getting enough light, the darker patterns will fade, still being visible but lacking the contrast that makes them so appealing. If you scroll back up to the crispy leaf photo, you’ll see the dark green, almost brown pattern of the rabbit tracks on the newer leaf (grown when moved close to the window), and the smaller, greener pattern of the older leaf on the top that was grown further from the window. The red maranta below shows this as well; you can see leaves with dark green backgrounds and contrasting red stripes, the middle leaf has less of the dark green contrast, and the bottom leaf partially cut off in the photo has hardly any red – this variation in intensity of color is entirely due to how far away from the window a particular leaf was growing.

red maranta

This is important to note, as the more light your plant gets, the more it “eats” in terms of water and fertilizer. If you have a plant close to a window, getting 400 – 800 foot candles of light at least a couple hours a day, putting out active new growth from multiple branches, you’ll need to water and fertilize it much more often than a plant growing with only 80 to 100 foot candles of light. My marantas growing close to windows get watered every couple of days, when I notice the soil is distinctly dry to the touch on the top. Marantas that are further from the light get watered every week or two, maybe, and if I notice pale leaves or stretching, I’ll rotate them closer to a window so they are able to grow a bit better.

I feed my marantas and other tropical plants with dilute fish emulsion every couple weeks when they’re growing, or roughly when I remember. In addition, their soil blend has bone meal, worm castings, and charcoal mixed in, as a small portion combined with the quality soil blend I prefer to use in the first place. If your marantas are kept somewhere dim (2,000 lux / 200 foot candles or less), you don’t need to fertilize if you’ve already started with a quality soil mix. The lack of light means the plant can’t process water and soil nutrients as quickly as it can otherwise, and adding extra fertilizer will just make your soil saturated and may even burn the plant’s roots. You can also use a basic house plant fertilizer, such as the slow release sticks or a powder, especially if you have a partner or roommate who understandably hates the smell of fish emulsion. I prefer fish emulsion / worm castings as a regular fertilizer as it’s balanced and hard to burn the plant if you accidentally use too much, plus it’s organic.

Dealing with Pests on Marantas

Indoor plants can suffer from a range of pests, including fungus gnats, scale, or spider mites. Even aphids can enjoy monching on some marantas!

When it comes to pests, I throw any notion of going organic out the window. It is all out chemical warfare in here.

Using a systemic pesticide is my preferred method of prevention, and I’ll mix Bonide pellets into my soil a couple times a year – in spring and in fall. This helps make sure anything that likes to bite and suck out the sap of my plants quite simply just dies, and isn’t able to hang out for a long period of time. I discovered Bonide pellets when looking for ways to deal with our seasonal spider mite issue with our tomato plants – the systemic isn’t food safe, so we couldn’t use the pellets for the tomato plants, but I was desperate for something to help protect my rare and expensive tropical plants from the spider mite invadors outdoors. Bonide did the trick!

The same spray I use on the food garden for our tomatoes and peppers is also quite effective in treating spider mites and scale on foliage, and can be a useful double-whammy if you discover the pests on one of your plants. If you don’t have a yard to take your plants out and spray them in, I highly recommend taking your plant into the shower and using the spray to wash off webs and any mites on the leaves, and then spraying the plant thoroughly in the shower (both under and on top of all leaves and stems) so it is thoroughly covered and you’re not getting pesticide all over your house. Let it drip dry in the shower, then return to your quarantine area for at least a month until you’re sure no more spider mites appear.

I’ve recently discovered lacewing larvae as an organic method of pest control, and they have worked wonders on getting fungus gnats under control before they drive my partner insane. In winter, plants often don’t consume as much water as their active growing months in summer, and when soil stays damp as a result, fungus gnats thrive. Watering your plants less often helps, as does thoroughly flushing the soil when you do water, but a round or two of lacewing larvae being released by your plants will also demolish the fungus gnats. If treating for spider mites, scale, or other foliage-damaging pests, treat with the lacewing larvae before you spray the foliage with pesticide or you’ll kill your beneficial bugs too.

Last but Not Least – Trimming and Maintenance

Over time, marantas can often get pretty leggy. They’re a sprawling plant that grows along the ground, and in our homes, they can look quite ungainly as they grow and spread. They also may go dormant if you’ve been particularly harsh in your watering regime (as I am from time to time, whoops), or if you cut them back too harshly, repot them and shock them, or otherwise disrupt their normal planty lives.

If you think your maranta has died completely back – don’t give up on it! Every year, my Marisela and variegated marantas tend to die back to a few stalks close to the soil, probably due to neglect on my part leading up to winter. I let them get dry, watch them a bit, and then start watering them more regularly again. I’ll thoroughly soak their soil, wait until I see new growth emerge, and then start watering like normal again.

Cutting back your marantas harshly to where there’s only a leaf or two, and a node, above the soil can help encourage bushy, lush new growth similar to what it may have looked like when you brought it home from the store. Since they grow from rhizomes under the soil, similar to grass, the very occasional trim can be good for them!

You’ll see new growth emerge as a rolled up little cigar that unfurls slowly, like the two leaves you see in the photo above. That’s growth from this season for my variegated maranta, after a severe die back and then repotting to refresh its soil.

Marantas are extremely rewarding, especially over the long term, and I highly recommend them as beautiful indoor foliage plant. They are a great gateway into learning more about advanced tropical plant care topics, such as water quality, light, and the balancing act needed for beautiful long term appearance.

Quick Reference Shopping List

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