The prayer plant, Maranta leuconeura, is one of roughly 20 species within the genus that is native to the Brazilian rainforest, where it occupies shady niches along the forest floor.
Beyond it’s well-known habit of folding its leaves in an erect position as nightfall approaches, this is one of the most attractive and easy to maintain foliage houseplants available.
Let’s take a closer look at this species and find out what it takes to make these plants thrive.
Basic Care Guidelines for the Prayer Plant
This a small perennial plant that typically remains well under two feet tall at maturity and nearly as wide. It grows along a creeping rhizome (underground stem). Its foliage is typified by 4 to 5-inch long oval leaves marked with attractive fish-bone type venation that can contrast sharply with leaf background color. This species produces small flowers when grown in good light and high humidity, but rarely flowers with any regularity in the dim light of most homes.
M. leuconeura has very few needs beyond maintaining good ordinary housplant care. Unsurprisingly given its adaptation to the dappled light of the forest floor, this species enjoys bright indirect or well-filtered light but should be protected from hot sun. Light coming from an east (ideal) or west-facing window is recommended, making sure to filter all direct light with the possible exception very early morning sun from the east. If you place your plant in very strong light it may bleach out its coloration; whereas low light will lead to slow growth and is likely to make this plant more vulnerable to pests. I would not consider this plant a “low light” species. It may persist for a long time in low light, but it is unlikely to grow and will gradually fade out.
Prayer plants should be watered by adhering to the general rule of allowing the surface soil to dry slightly between waterings and checking soil moisture with the finger-stick method. This is especially true for plants grown in very dim light, which are always more prone to overwatering given their reduced transpiration rates. Likewise, plants in winter will normally have less need for water as well. Whenever you do water, take care to always do so thoroughly, letting the water drain out from the pot. Typical household temperatures are fine for M. leuconeura so long as extremes are avoided.
Prayer Plants Thrive in Humidity
High humidity is probably the one thing that M. leuconeura truly craves. Indeed, while many houseplants hail from balmy rainforest habitat, they often can settle for dry indoor air. Prayer plants too can cope with drier air to some degree, but they suffer for it. In particular, specimens kept in low humidity are easy targets for spider mites, which can do extensive damage before they are even noticed. Try to mist your prayer plant daily or set the pot on a tray of water and pebbles. A small room humidifier is also a good idea, and is likely to benefit the other houseplants in the room too.
If repotting, any good quick-draining potting mix should do. Remember to be conservative with potting and only use pots slightly larger than the original. Prayer plants do not need large pots and, like most houseplants, are often most comfortable when their roots have nearly filled the pot. Fertilize regularly as any houseplant, making sure to cut the manufacturer’s recommended dose in half for plants grown in dimmer locations.
As with most rhizotomous plants, propagation is straightforward. When transplanting or repotting, select a young 6-8″ portion of the stem that has a least a couple leaves on it; cut it from the mother plant using sharp scissors or a razor blade. The cut should be angled. Take this stem cutting and bury it shallowly in a light seed starting mix, making sure that attached leaves are above the soil line. Keep the medium moist at all times. Place the cutting in a humid area and/or mist frequently. A plastic bag can also be placed over the cutting to raise humidity; use a popsicle stick on either side of the pot to prevent the plastic from touching the leaves. Keep the cutting warm and in indirect light; roots should appear within 4 weeks or so.
Common Problems with Prayer Plants
While lack of sufficient light is probably the leading cause of failing health and loss of color and vigor, leaf tip browning is commonly observed in long-time houseplants. This can be caused by many things, but is usually a sign of underwatering, low humidity, over-fertilization or high mineral content in tapwater. This can often be remedied in large part by raising humidity and/or periodically flushing the pot with reverse osmosis or distilled water to leach out accumulated salts and minerals. Use of distilled water also has the added benefit or reducing soil pH and unlocking trace metals that are normally bound up when plants are routinely watered with hard tap water. Prayer plants are vulnerable to most common houseplant pests, especially spider mites and mealybugs.
Photo credits (in order of appearance):
“prayer plant” by Cliff under CC BY 2.0
“prayer plant, flower cropped” by KaCey 97007 under CC BY 2.0
“Maranta leuconeura Fascinator” by Maja Dumat under CC BY 2.0