So you’ve acquired a beautiful foliage plant – maybe as an impulse buy, maybe as a gift from a friend – but you know nothing about it except that it’s called a Calathea. A quick search online brings up pictures of dozens of different plants, some very similar to yours and others wildly different. Just how many types of Calathea are there? And what kind do you have?
There are dozens of species and nearly 300 cultivars categorized as Calatheas. Many of those varieties are rarely seen outside their native rainforest, so we’ll focus on Calatheas which are widely popular and readily available for the average house plant owner. Fortunately, even this limited selection includes a jaw-dropping diversity of leaf shapes and patterns.
Despite their variation in appearance, most Calatheas have similar care requirements. They prefer bright, indirect light, moderately warm temperatures, and high humidity, and they thrive best in soil that’s consistently airy and damp. No Calathea is a true “beginner plant,” but a few varieties are known for being more robust or more fragile, which we’ll note when we describe them.
What Calatheas Have in Common
Calatheas grow their leaves into a broad, bushy shape rather than developing a tall central stalk. Most varieties top out at around 2 to 3 feet tall, though their exact height depends on what time you measure them – like their cousins, the Prayer Plants, Calatheas tilt their leaves up to a nearly vertical position when it gets dark.
Calatheas are sensitive to direct sunlight, and their beautiful foliage will burn and fade if left in full sun for more than a couple of hours. In the proper lighting, though, Calatheas develop striking banded or spotted patterns in which dark green alternates with pale green, white, and sometimes maroon or pink. New leaves emerge rolled up like scrolls, unfurling over the course of several days.
Your plant will grow best if its roots remain mildly damp but not soaking wet, so the ideal soil will have lots of coarse elements for aeration and drainage but also some spongy organic matter. One simple but effective mix includes 40% coarse perlite, 40% coconut coir, and 20% African Violet potting soil. Calatheas prefer humidity above 60% and temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Calathea leaves tend to wilt, curl, and turn brown at the drop of a hat if their demanding care requirements aren’t met. However, if you can provide your plant with a stable environment that suits its preferences, it will produce a breathtaking display of lush and lovely foliage.
What Kind of Calathea Do You Have?
Now that we’ve covered the characteristics Calatheas share, let’s talk about how you can tell them apart. We’ll review 9 of the most well-known varieties and describe their distinguishing characteristics.
Number 1: The Zebra Plant
Leading off the rundown is Calathea zebrina, the Zebra Calathea or Zebra Plant. Like the animal which gives the plant its nickname, this variety is a study in contrast, with bands of pale green alternating with others dark enough to appear black in some lights. The ovate leaves can reach more than a foot in length. As with many Calatheas, the undersides of the leaves have a purplish-pink color, adding splashes of warmth to the plant’s palette as new growth appears.
Number 2: The Pinstripe Plant
The scientific name for this variety is Calathea ornata – quite appropriate, given its intricate appearance. The Pinstripe Plant’s elliptic leaves have a dark green base color, augmented with stripes of white shading to pale pink – so thin they look like the work of a fine-tipped paintbrush. Despite its delicate appearance, Calathea ornata is considered a tougher variety, less sensitive to low humidity than many of its siblings.
Number 3: The Round-Leaf Calathea
The large and nearly circular leaves of Calathea orbifolia are the source of both its common and Latin names. With its huge, bushy foliage, this plant will add a slightly wild and tropical atmosphere to the spot in which you place it. This type of Calathea is known for being especially sensitive to repotting, and to the chemicals present in tap water.
Number 4: The Rose-Painted Calathea
The species Calathea roseopicta includes several popular cultivars. To name just a few: there’s the Corona, which features a distinctive pattern like a flame picked out in alternating shades of green. There’s the Dottie, which sports a central vein and a flaring outline traced in bright pink. Then there’s the eye-catching Rosey cultivar, with a huge pink center edged in a green so dark it could be mistaken for black.
Number 5: The Peacock Plant
Also called the Cathedral Window, Calathea makoyana can be distinguished by the dark green elliptical dots that climb in an alternating pattern from the base to the tip of each ovate leaf. The same pattern is repeated on the underside, but in a dark burgundy hue that provides an intriguing counterpoint when the plant raises its leaves up for the evening.
Number 6: The Rattlesnake Plant
Calathea lancifolia has a foliage pattern very similar that of to the Peacock Plant, but its leaves are much longer and thinner, and their pronounced wavy texture makes them look jagged and wild. The Rattlesnake Plant is widely considered the most forgiving Calathea variety, so it’s probably the best option for those new to caring for these fickle houseplants.
Number 7: The Network Calathea
Perhaps the most distinctive entry on our list is Calathea musaica, which displays an intricate grid of tiny rectangles alternating between dark and light green. It looks almost digital – possibly the inspiration for its garden name. Somewhat unusual for a Calathea, the top and bottom sides of its leaves are the same hue.
Number 8: The Eternal Flame Calathea
While the foliage is the star of the show with most plants in this group, Calathea crocata is prized for its blooms. It’s one of the only varieties that reliably flowers indoors, producing vivid orange inflorescences that resemble bursting flares. Exposure to bright morning sunlight will encourage it to bloom.
Number 9: The White Fusion Calathea
Sometimes called “Fusion White”, this rare cultivar of Calathea lietzei is both widely beloved and widely hated – it’s known as one of the most fragile, finicky varieties around. Its gorgeous variegation explains why some growers are still willing to take on the challenge. Under proper lighting, the White Fusion will develop mottled patches of dark green, pale green, and bright white, with hints of rosy pink peeking through from beneath.
Calathea or Goeppertia?
Many species formerly listed under the genus Calathea have been reclassified as Goeppertia for complicated botanical reasons we won’t pretend to understand. This includes many of the most popular varieties – including the majority of the entries on the list above!
However, virtually everyone in the world of indoor gardening still calls these plants Calatheas – that’s the name you’ll use to find care guides, forum discussions, or live plants for sale. So we’re sticking with calling them Calatheas for now. Just remember: if you find a picture that looks exactly like your Calathea under the label Goeppertia something-or-other, it’s probably the same plant.
Stromanthes, Ctenanthes, and Prayer Plants
Adding to the confusion over names is the fact that a few plants which have never been in the genus Calathea are sometimes sold as Calatheas anyway. Most of these are variegated cultivars that resemble the Calathea White Fusion. The two most common examples are Stromanthe sanguinea Triostar and Ctenanthe oppenheimiana Tricolor, both of which are sought after for the patterns of pink, mint green, and creamy white on their long lance-shaped leaves.
You may also run into people referring to Calatheas as Prayer Plants and vice versa, due to their shared habit of folding their leaves at night. Technically, though, these are different plants – the true Prayer Plant is called Maranta leuconeura, and it’s a bit easier to care for than most Calatheas.
With any luck, you’ve now identified the plant growing in your home. And perhaps you’ve gained a deeper appreciation for the hugely varied beauty of Calatheas in the process. Whatever plant you’re caring for, we wish you both a long and happy future together!