Houseplant owners love Calatheas for their lush leaves and their striking patterns, which vary dramatically from species to species. In fact, they’re available in so many varieties that it can be hard to tell whether you have a Calathea or some other type of indoor plant. If you’re wondering what distinguishes them from other common tropical houseplants, you’re not alone!
Calatheas are members of the Marantaceae plant family and are often mistaken for other members of this group like Ctenanthes and Marantas (the true Prayer Plants). Though they have similar appearances and care requirements, Calatheas are often pickier about their growing conditions than their relatives, especially when it comes to humidity. No matter which genus you have, it will appreciate indirect light, good soil drainage, and moderate warmth.
Though they thrive in the same environments as aroids like Philodendrons or Pothos, they aren’t actually very closely related. In practice, it can be hard to tell the difference – the clearest distinction is in the shapes of their blooms, but many varieties won’t easily flower indoors. Keep reading to find out what sets Calatheas apart and how to recognize some of the most common cultivars.
Are Calatheas Prayer Plants?
Believe it or not, you’ll find different answers to this apparently simple question depending on where you look. Officially, the answer is no. True Prayer Plants are members of the genus Maranta, while Calatheas belong to the genus – drumroll, please – Calathea. However, like all members of the Marantaceae family, they exhibit the quirk which gives Prayer Plants their name: the habit of tilting up their leaves at night, not unlike a person steepling their hands for bedtime prayers.
This behavior is called nyctinasty. Believe it or not, botanists aren’t sure exactly why the plants do this. Some have suggested that it helps them regulate temperature, others think it helps channel extra moisture toward the roots, and still others think it’s a way to cut down on nibbling from herbivores.
The leaves of Prayer Plants are fairly rounded and usually sport symmetrical patterns with sharply defined veins. Calathea foliage comes in a much wider variety of shapes, including long ovals or lances, and the patterns on the leaves can be alternating as well as symmetrical. We offer a more in-depth discussion on the relationship between Calatheas and Prayer Plants here.
Is a Never Never Plant a Calathea?
Another genus that’s frequently confused with Calathea is Ctenanthe (pronounced “ten-an-thee,” with a silent C), commonly called Never Never Plants. These are also Marantaceae, with similar boldly patterned leaves and “praying” behavior, so it’s easy to mix them up.
In fact, even commercial plant retailers make this mistake from time to time! The most popular variety of Ctenanthe is C. oppenheimiana Tricolor, which creates leaves marked with intriguing irregular patches of creamy white and pale pink. It’s sometimes sold as a “Calathea Tricolor.” Technically, though, there’s no such plant.
Many people lump all the members of the Marantaceae family together, considering them all “Prayer Plants,” and market their plants under the names Calathea and Maranta in place of the less-well-known Ctenanthe. The confusion is understandable, but there are some subtle differences between these plant varieties.
If you purchased a Ctenanthe thinking it was a Calathea, we have some good news for you – Ctenanthes are often a bit more tolerant of dry air, though both types of plant will be at their best in fairly high humidity.
Mature Ctenathes also develop above-ground, branching stalks, while Calatheas send up new leaves directly from the root mass. The stems of a Ctenanthe are fibrous and tough, sometimes feeling a bit like bamboo. You can propagate the plant from stem cuttings, while Calatheas can only be multiplied by dividing them at the roots or growing them from seed.
Stromanthe Triostar vs. Calathea
Adding to the confusion between Calatheas and Ctenanthes is yet another frequently mislabeled member of the Marantaceae family: the Stromanthe genus.
There are only two variants widely sold as houseplants. The first is Stromanthe sanguinea Triostar, which closely resembles the Ctenanthe Tricolor. Its long leaves have uneven patches of pink and white that look like abstract paintings. The second variant, Stromanthe thalia Magicstar, has leaves with dark pinkish-purple undersides and small white marks on the upper surfaces – they look almost like paint splatters.
The Triostar and Magicstar are often inaccurately listed as Calatheas, presumably because many people have never heard of Stromanthes. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some unscrupulous growers will try to pass off a Ctenanthe Tricolor as a Stromanthe Triostar so they can charge higher prices- the Stromanthe is a bit more popular because it tends to have brighter pinks that seem to glow when backlit.
Confused? We don’t blame you. Just remember that if you see something labeled a “Calathea Triostar,” you’re actually seeing a Stromanthe Triostar – or something pretending to be one.
If you’re trying to tell the difference, take a closer look at the patterns and the overall shapes of the leaves. It’s very rare to see big, irregular swathes of pink on a Calathea; there are some varieties with pink markings, but they’re generally symmetrical. Many types of Calathea also have ruffled edges on their foliage, in contrast to the regular borders of Stromanthe leaves.
To distinguish between the Stromanthe Triostar and the Ctenanthe Tricolor, you can inspect the central vein, which is much lighter in color and more sharply defined in the Ctenanthe. The Ctenanthe also has pale, silvery stripes in the centers of its green segments. Those bands are absent in Stromanthes.
Is a Birkin a Calathea?
Another foliage plant that can resemble a Calathea is the Birkin. Its leaves display bright, pale pinstripes over a base of dark and glossy green, creating a contrast that reminds many houseplant enthusiasts of Calatheas. But the Birkin is a Philodendron, originally a spontaneous mutation of the Rojo Congo variety.
Birkins grow much like Calatheas, sprouting clusters of wide leaves that remain fairly low to the ground; unlike many other Philodendrons, they’re not climbers. Also, like Calatheas, they rarely flower indoors, and they prefer high humidity, indirect light, and soil with good drainage.
The similarities end there, though. Birkins typically have cordate (heart-shaped) foliage, while the leaves of Calatheas are usually oblong, oval, or lance-shaped. Like Ctenanthes, Birkins are more drought-tolerant than Calatheas and can be propagated from stem cuttings. They’re also mildly toxic, producing irritation, inflammation, and a burning sensation if ingested. Calatheas are safer for pets and children.
Birkins don’t tilt their leaves upward like Prayer Plants and Calatheas. They may shrivel and curl if they’re dehydrated, but they lack a built-in daily cycle of motion.
Is an Aglaonema a Calathea?
Aglaonemas, commonly called Chinese Evergreens, can mimic some types of Calatheas even more closely than Birkins. Low-light Aglaonema varieties like the Emerald Bay or Silver King combine dark and pale shades of green in much the same way as popular Calatheas like the Freddie or the White Fusion. Some even have bright pinks mixed in, similar to a Calathea Rosey or Pinstripe. The leaves of both plants display a similar variety of shapes, ranging from narrow blades to shorter almond shapes.
But Chinese Evergreens are much more closely related to Philodendrons. They can hold up better in the face of dry conditions than Calatheas, which are notoriously picky about their watering schedules. And like Philodendrons, they produce an irritating and slightly toxic sap.
One easy way to tell these plants apart is by watching their behavior as the day draws to a close. Aglaonema leaves don’t move upward at night the way Calatheas do.
What if you’re looking at a plant in the store, and you don’t have time to wait around until nightfall? Another option is to look for stems. Aglaonemas produce branching stalks as they mature, rather than growing strictly from underground rhizomes like Calatheas.
It also helps to know a bit about the leaf patterns these plants display. There’s no way to cover all the quirky hybrids you might find in botanical gardens or experimental greenhouses, but it’s possible to draw some generalizations about the most common types of Calatheas and Aglaonemas.
First of all, the lighter patches on Chinese Evergreens tend to take up more space than those on Calatheas. Many Aglaonema leaves are almost entirely pale green at the centers, with the darker colors only creeping in around the edges or along the veins.
Calathea leaves are usually darker on balance. The paler portions also generally show up in narrow, clearly defined stripes, unlike the more mottled appearance of Aglaonemas.
Some varieties of both Aglaonemas and Calatheas have leaves with pink, red, or purple undersides, but Aglaonemas with this trait usually have at least a bit of pink on the upper surface as well. Calatheas can be more dramatically two-toned.
The pink coloration on Chinese Evergreens also tends to show up in speckles, clustering along the edges, veins, and central ribs of the leaves. When Calatheas display pink on the surface of their leaves, it’s usually in tight stripes. Some varieties do break with this pattern; the Calathea Rosey, for example, has a big fuschia patch in the center of each leaf. But this patch is still more regular in appearance than the pink speckles on many Aglaonemas.
Are Calatheas Aroids?
Aglaonemas and Philodendrons are both members of the Araceae family, commonly known as aroids. Despite their superficial similarities, Calatheas and aroids occupy fairly distant branches on the evolutionary tree. Genetically speaking, their closest link is that they’re both members of the commelinid monocot clade.
That’s not much of a connection. Palm trees, cattails, and wheat are about as closely related to Calatheas as Chinese Evergreens are.
You wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at them, though – as we’ve already seen, many aroids look a lot like Calatheas and thrive in similar environments. So how can you distinguish between these types of plants?
The most sure-fire method is by looking at their blooms. When aroids flower, they produce a stubby spike known as a spadix that’s backed by a specialized leaf called a spathe or bract. Though the spathe is the part that looks like a petal, the real flowers are the tiny nubs that sprout in tight rows along the spadix. The combination of spathe and spadix is called an inflorescence.
The inflorescence of a Calathea looks very different. The most common pattern consists of several nested layers of bracts forming a vertical tower around the flowers. The whole structure looks a bit like a delicate stack of teacups. There are other varieties too, including several species with inflorescences that look like snake rattles, but none of them have the spathe-and-spadix arrangement of an aroid.
Sadly, this method is hard to count on since most indoor Calatheas bloom rarely, if at all. You’re better off looking at the leaf patterns and trying to identify the particular variety in front of you.
Popular Calathea Varieties
Botanists have described more than 300 species of Calathea. We doubt you have time to read about all of them here, so we’ll stick to describing a few of the types that are best loved by houseplant growers.
- Calathea zebrina, the Zebra Plant. It’s easy to spot the reason behind this plant’s name: its leaves display a vivid pattern of light and dark bands.
- Calathea makoyana or Peacock Plant. A beautiful variety that shows off a combination of dark oval spots and lime green stripes on its leaves, with purple coloration on the undersides.
- Calathea orbifolia, known as the Round-Leaf Calathea. Great for foliage lovers, this Calathea produces a dense array of huge, round leaves with dramatic veins.
- Calathea ornata, the Pinstripe Plant. The slender pinkish-white stripes on the tops of this variety could be mistaken for the strokes of a fine paintbrush. It’s also called the Femme Fatale, and it’s even trickier to grow than some of its relatives.
- Calathea lanficolia, aka the Rattlesnake Calathea. Patterned like the Peacock Plant, but with leaves shaped like long, serrated blades.
- Calathea lietzei or White Fusion Calathea. This is another variant that’s considered a diva even among Calathea lovers. The White Fusion requires precise lighting conditions to develop its distinctive white variegation.
With so much variation within a single genus, it’s no surprise that Calatheas can be tough to identify. Hopefully, now you’ll have an easier time spotting them! Just be careful – although they can be tricky to grow, their gorgeous patterns may turn you into an avid collector before you realize what’s happening.