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Getting to Know Maranta Plants

Red maranta plant with new leaf
All Marantas produce new leaves in a tight whorl that gradually open up. The bright leaf veins of red marantas make this an eye-catching process. 

Fishbone maranta plant

These pieces of beautiful botanical art were created by Gordon M. Gee, who painted signs for the Christchurch Botanic Gardens in Christchurch, New Zealand, for 18 years. Above, Gee created Maranta leuconeura 'Massangeana' in 1974. The kerchoviana art below was done in 1966. You can browse the Gordon Gee collection here.

Rabbit tracks maranta plant
Red maranta

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Italian physician and botanist Bartolomea Maranta wrote comprehensive volumes on medicinal plants in 1559, but his most lasting legacy is the ginger genus named after him, the Marantas. Commonly called prayer plants, Marantas are native to the rainforests of Brazil. Because Marantas feature artfully etched leaves and adapt well to low light, they are treasured houseplants around the world. 

Prayer plants are considered cat safe, and they may be useful for filtering pollutants from indoor air. 

Bartolomea Maranta

Rabbit track maranta plant, photo by Kurt Stuber

The prayer plants grown indoors are usually one of these three subspecies:

Maranta leuconeura erythroneura is the familiar red maranta plant, also called herringbone plant because of the dark green/light green to cream patterns of the leaf colors with contrasting red veins. The leaf undersides of this subspecies are reddish, and the blooms are two-tone pink and white.

Maranta leuconeura kerchoviana is similar to red maranta, but the leaf veins are white rather than red, with silvery leaf undersides. Dark patterns between the leaf veins resemble animal tracks, hence the common name of rabbit track plant. The kerchoviana marantas appear more formal and refined compared to the tricolors in many indoor situations.

Maranta leuconeura massageana has white leaf veins and dark green, high-contrast light and dark green patches that have earned it the common name of fishbone plant. The rare and beautiful black Maranta belongs to this subspecies group. Its mint green leaves are marked with elegant black-green patches. 

Photo of rabbit track Maranta by Kurt Stüber: http://www.kurtstueber.de

How Marantas Move

Maranta plants hold their leaves horizontally during the day, but at night the stems and leaves tilt upward, so the plants appear to have perked up. These nyctinastic movements can sometimes be heard as a gentle rustling of leaves, especially in the evening or pre-dawn hours. It is a hydraulic system in which the bases of the main leaf veins push and pull moisture to change the leaves’ positions.

This time-lapse video by Gavin Huang shows a red prayer plant’s movement from night to day, condensed into less than two minutes. One of the remarkable things about Huang’s video is the contrast between the moving maranta plant and the other houseplants that stay still. It is as if the Maranta plant is the only one that knows how to dance. 

Red maranta plant flowers

Maranta plants are willing bloomers, especially when watered thoroughly after a dry spell. The natural growth habit of Maranta plants is to spread into a ground cover, with new plants taking root when nodes touch the soil. Indoors, these spreading tendencies can become untidy. Maranta plants naturally shed leaves as they grow, which need to be clipped off along with shriveled bloom spikes and blemished leaves.

You can root Maranta cuttings at any time of year, but the best time is summer, because it can be done outdoors as part of the repotting process. Cuttings will hold for a while in water, but it is best to get them growing in clean potting soil as promptly as possible. Simply stick nodes with 1 or 2 leaves attached one inch deep in moist potting soil, and put the potted cutting in a very shady place – I put mine under a wood table where they get deep shade all day. By the end of summer I have plenty of healthy rooted plants to share.