THE world is never short of new offspring of amazing and attractive foliar varieties that attract other organisms, including mankind, to take a closer look at them.
Perhaps a very dramatic way to start this column, but this was exactly what I felt upon seeing new versions of the colourful calatheas up for Chinese New Year sale at a nursery in Kuching late December last year.
I carried out some research work before returning to the supplier nursery and to my surprise, such information was not even recorded – the dealers only advertised these plants as ‘for sale’ in the website.
Calathea, also called the ‘prayer’s plant’, is a genus of the flowering plants belonging to the Marantaceae family.
About 200 species formerly assigned to Calathea are now in the genus Goeppertia. Calathea currently contains around 60 species.
Said to have originated in Brazil, this plant is also known for its leaves being used for wrapping fish, meat, or other raw materials – in Thailand, the leaves are used as rice containers.
Introducing, the calathea
Calathea was introduced in Hawaii several decades ago as an indoor plant, in view of the attractive markings on its leaves. Colour-wise, there are pink, orange, red and white varieties. The leaves would fold up at night and open once in contact with the morning sunlight. In botany, this is known as ‘nyctinasty’.
It has flowers, which can be yellow, purple or white, but they are asymmetrical with three petals and three free sepals.
The bracts are actually more attractive than the flowers.
Calatheas are herbaceous perennial plants. They are also good for foul air absorption inside a room.
As stated earlier, the leaves are more attractive than the flowers. The dazzling array of colours make calatheas possibly the most beautiful tropical plants, most sought after by the landscapers and indoor decorators.
The Calathea orbifolia features silvery green stripes on the leaves, while the Calathea makoyana – also known as ‘peacock plant’ or ‘cathedral windows’ – has dark green leaves with purplish or pinkish red stems. Another species, Calathea ornata – or ‘pinstripe plant’, has deep green leaves and pink stripes.
During the lunar festive season this year, I could see several notable cultivars on sale and upon asking the importers, they said that many were known in Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia and gradually, they were introduced here.
According to them, it would take over a year for the plant to establish and grow to a marketable size.
How to grow the beautiful calatheas?
Under suitable conditions, calatheas can grow up to a height of three feet (almost one metre), but they are slow growers. They require the right conditions such as having low and medium light. Direct sunlight can damage their fragile leaves, while too much would cause sunburn or result in dullness on its glossy leaves.
Water deficiency can result in brown and dry leaves. They are also sensitive to chlorine and fluoride in regular tap water; thus, it is best to use rainwater.
Calatheas are non-toxic to humans and pets.
Most of the planting materials are taken from the parent plants via root division, although seeds can be used, but with uncertain results of germination.
New plants should be put into a medium that is a 2:1 mix of soil-based compost and perlite or charcoal. Remember, we need to grow them under high humidity and low light exposure, so allocate a specific spot for it in the garden.
Medium that is too wet or too soggy, and over-watering, can cause root rot. The base of the plant could turn black if no remedial action is taken – eventually, the plant would lose leaves and die.
Calathea is a beautiful decorative indoor plant and thus, it needs the right conditions such as low light and high humidity. With proper care, they bring colours to a room, with its attractive geometrical patterns.
Normally the darker the leaves, the lower the light intensity required for the plant to maintain its health.
Humidity can be ensured using a humidifier, or by placing the pot over a tray filled with pebbles and water, but do watch for mosquitoes.
Mist the plants with natural water – piped water can also be used, but it must be left overnight for the chlorine to dissipate.
Finally, remember that all good specimens need good beautiful pots to house them for indoor display. Many friends of mine are willing to pay up to RM50 for a small, but high-quality pot!