Goeppertia zebrina (aka Calathea zebrina)
You may have heard that zebra calathea is a slightly fussy plant to grow. I’d like to convince you that the care involved is well worth it.
All it takes really is learning what this tropical species needs so you can successfully meet its requirements.
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That’s what we’ll discuss in this article – how to grow and care for this houseplant, from A to… well, Zebrina!
Here’s what I’ll cover:
What You’ll Learn
Cultivation and History
Zebra calathea is a type of prayer plant, an evergreen herbaceous perennial grown for its striking, stripey green foliage.
This tropical species has large elliptical leaves which grow to be 18 inches long or more. These leaves have smooth margins and are held singly on long stems.
The top sides of the leaves have a matte, velvety texture and are pale green with a pale green midrib, and wide, dark green stripes that are forked at the leaf margins.
The undersides of the leaves are light green or sometimes purple.
Another characteristic of zebrina, and other prayer plants, is that new leaves emerge rolled up and slowly unfurl.
This species has a fountain-like and spreading growth habit, growing to be up to three feet tall with a three-foot spread.
Although specimens kept as houseplants rarely flower, zebrina produces large, low-growing inflorescences with white and purple flowers.
One of the fun parts of keeping prayer plants like zebrina and its relatives red veined maranta and peacock plant is that they exhibit a fascinating behavior called “nyctinastic movement.”
These species move their leaves in reaction to nightfall and daybreak.
During the day, the zebra plant holds its stalks out with the leaves held more or less horizontally.
But after the sun sets, this species brings its stems in together, raising its leaves for the night.
In the morning, after sunrise, it lowers its leaves again.
If you have ever gardened at night, you may have observed your pea plants exhibiting a similar type of movement in reaction to changing daylight. (Night gardening? Can’t be any crazier than naked gardening, can it?)
Zebra calathea is sometimes confused with other houseplants that have similar leaf patterns or share a common name. Here are some of the commonly confused lookalikes:
One very close lookalike from the same family is G. ecuadoriana, a species that is native to Ecuador.
This prayer plant has a very similar leaf pattern but without the forked stripes. It also differs in that it has pink or purple stems, while G. zebrina has green stems.
Another houseplant easily confused with the subject of this article is Aphelandra squarrosa. A. squarrosa has a similar appearance to G. zebrina and, making matters more confusing, goes by the common name “zebra plant.”
This species has showy, bright yellow flowers. New leaves don’t unroll as do those of our calathea, and the leaves of A. squarrosa are dark green and white rather than being light and dark green.
One more houseplant commonly called “zebra plant” is Haworthiopsis fasciata, a succulent species from South Africa.
This succulent, as lovely as it is, does not bear much of a resemblance to the subject of our article beyond its stripes.
And there may be other houseplants that have the same or a similar common name as well.
So if your best friend calls and asks if you want the zebra plant they just inherited, find out which species they are referring to before you start decorating your plant nursery specifically for G. zebrina!
In the wild, this species is native to Brazil, where it grows on the rainforest floor in humid tropical conditions in full or dappled shade.
Zebrina is a member of the Marantaceae or prayer plant family, whose other members include species in the Maranta, Stromanthe, and Ctenanthe genera.
While the zebra plant was formerly classified in the Calathea genus, it and many other calatheas were moved to a different genus in 2012 known as Goeppertia.
While now named Goeppertia zebrina for the purpose of taxonomy, this species is still commonly referred to by its previous name, Calathea zebrina. Some sources also refer to its botanical name as Maranta zebrina.
Its species name, “zebrina,” as you may have already guessed, means “striped like a zebra.”
Commonly, it’s still called “zebra calathea.”
In 1993, G. zebrina won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.
While many such awards are typically reserved for hybrids or cultivars that exist only because of the work of plant breeders, the RHS frequently gives these awards to naturally occurring species.
It’s like they’re giving out an award to nature, and I wholeheartedly concur with their judgement. Way to go, nature!
But in case you’re starting to think zebra calathea would look just as nice in your backyard as in your living room, hold on there. You’ll want to grow this one indoors unless you live in USDA Hardiness Zones 10b or 11.
Calatheas are tricky to propagate from seed, and it’s not often that these plants flower as houseplants anyway. Your best option for propagating zebra calathea is to do so by dividing a mature plant.
Zebrina grows from rhizomes – each rhizome sends up stems, and each stem bears a leaf. Have a look at your plant. If you see more than one clump of stems, that means it can be divided.
For best results, make sure rhizome clumps have at least three leaves on them.
When you’re ready to divide, gently separate one clump from the other. Then pot up each clump according to the instructions in the repotting section below.
It’s best to perform this operation in spring when zebra calathea is in a period of active growth.
How to Grow
To keep this calathea happy and healthy, make sure you know how to provide it with the care it needs.
Unlike snake plants, which seem to thrive on neglect, zebrina will need somewhat more frequent attention. Here’s what you’ll need to know:
Choosing a Plant
Start off by choosing a healthy zebra calathea. Look for a specimen that is without yellow or brown leaves, that is potted in a container with drainage holes, and that is growing in peaty potting soil.
Also look for signs of disease or pest infestation – you’ll learn more about these later in the article.
When buying these houseplants online, you won’t have the chance to inspect the calathea prior to purchasing, so read reviews from other customers to get a sense of the vendor’s reputation.
Also, find out how the vendor ships the plant – if you are shipping during cold weather, you may need to request that the vendor send a heat pack with your order. In summer, an ice pack may be needed to prevent overheating.
The first thing you’ll want to consider when deciding where to situate your zebra calathea within your home is light exposure.
Zebra calatheas thrive when provided with medium, indirect sunlight. They are also adaptable to low, indirect light.
To achieve the ideal level of light exposure, position your zebra plant at least a few feet away from any windows.
If your main source of light is a south facing window that lets in quite a bit of direct sun, move your calathea a few feet further from the window.
A little direct sun in the morning hours is okay, but direct sun during the middle of the day or in the afternoon, when the sun’s rays are at their hottest, should be avoided.
Placing your houseplant at least a few feet away from windows will help ensure that the plant is protected from too much light – as well as helping to fulfill its climatic needs. We’ll get to those shortly.
Note that the available sun exposure will change throughout the year – summer may bring less direct light through south facing windows, while in winter you may see quite intense sun rays coming through those same windows.
This means you may need to relocate your specimen slightly throughout the year to make sure it’s getting enough light , but not too much.
Simply keep an eye on it – if you notice it getting a lot of direct sun, move it further from the window; if it is always in low light, move it a bit closer.
Another important factor to consider when positioning your zebra calathea is temperature. This species is from the tropics, and will thrive in temperatures between 65 and 80°F.
Temperatures below 55°F can damage this plant, while temperatures below 32°F can kill it, so take care to keep it from freezing.
Just like poinsettias, zebrinas and other prayer plants don’t like extreme temperature changes and they don’t like drafts. Positioning this species in a location away from potential drafts will keep it feeling and looking its best.
That means you should avoid placing your zebra calathea in locations close to drafty doors or fireplaces, but also avoid hot spots such as radiators.
And refrain from locating these calatheas too close to windows, where temperatures can fluctuate dramatically between day and night.
Once you have found the ideal location for your zebra calathea, the next most important thing to know is how this species likes to be watered.
While most houseplants are more at risk of being overwatered than underwatered, this is not the case with the subject of our article. Calatheas tend to be thirsty plants, and zebrina is no different.
For this species, you will want to keep its soil moist – but not wet – and don’t allow it to dry out between waterings.
Depending on the conditions in your home, this may mean watering once or twice a week during the summer, and once every week to ten days during the winter.
I recommend starting with a once-a-week watering and adjusting from there.
When you’re ready to water, remove your calathea from its decorative cachepot, if it has one, and place it in a bowl, a sink, or the bathtub.
Pour water over the surface of the soil until water starts to run out of the pot’s drainage holes. (If there are no drainage holes in your pot, this constitutes a plant emergency! Drop everything and quickly read the section on potting below, before your calathea gets into trouble.)
After watering, the pot should feel relatively heavy. Make a mental note of its weight. Check it a week later – it should feel significantly lighter.
However, if you see the surface of the soil become lighter in color before a week is up, that means the soil surface is drying and you have probably waited a bit too long between waterings.
To remedy this, you may need to provide a slightly longer soak in water than usual to help it recover from being overly thirsty.
I like to let my slightly underwatered houseplants (hey, it happens to all of us) sit in a bowl filled with water for a few extra minutes to help them rehydrate.
This is quite similar to the bottom watering technique, which allows the plant to wick up water from the bottom of the soil.
While keeping your houseplant from drying out is important, you’ll also want to be careful not to overwater, which can lead to root rot. So water frequently, but not zealously.
Like its relatives in the Marantaceae family, zebrina is sensitive to chemicals and heavy amounts of minerals in water. Using rainwater, distilled, or filtered water will keep your zebra calathea looking its prettiest.
Along with proper watering, using the right type of soil will help your zebrina stay well hydrated – you’ll learn more about that in the section on repotting. We’ll get to that just a little later.
Coming from a humid tropical zone means this species needs more humidity than you might naturally have in your home.
If you don’t know what the humidity levels are inside your home (and why should you?), you might want to start off by monitoring this.
If you don’t have a humidity gauge or “hygrometer,” as they are known to the nerdier among us, you might consider investing in a combo thermometer-hygrometer which will help you keep your zebra calathea in the best climatic conditions.
You’ll find a digital combo hygrometer and thermometer available for purchase from LittleGood via Amazon.
While we desert dwellers certainly have to keep an eye on the humidity, even those of you who live in climates with hot, humid summers may find your indoor air is dry in winter because of the drying effect of your heating system.
Once you ascertain that you need to increase the humidity around your calathea, there are several methods you can use, and you may want to employ more than one.
One of the best low-budget ways to add humidity is to use a spray bottle to spritz your houseplant every morning.
Just like when you water, make sure you use rainwater, filtered water, or distilled water to spritz your plant. Zebra calatheas are sensitive to exposure to chemicals and hard water via their leaves as much as they are through their roots.
Another way to add extra humidity is to surround your zebrina with other houseplants – a community of plants holds in more humidity than a solo specimen.
And if your zebrina is small enough, you might consider placing it inside a terrarium – this is one of the tricks I use to keep these humidity-lovers happy in my dry climate.
In my household, a terrarium does double duty, of holding in humidity as well as protecting my calatheas from my curious cats.
Yet another method you can use to increase humidity for your zebrina is to place dishes or trays of water beneath the leaves of the plant.
I accomplish this by adding small teacups of water inside my terrariums, but there’s a slightly more professional method you can use – a humidity tray.
You fill the humidity tray with water, and above the water a grid is positioned to set the pots on. You can find such a humidity tray available for purchase from Humidi-Grow via Amazon.
Finally, if your indoor air is very dry like mine is, or if you have a larger specimen that won’t fit inside a terrarium, you might consider positioning a humidifier near your calathea.
- Provide medium, indirect light.
- Keep soil moist but not wet.
- Avoid drafts and temperature extremes.
Pruning and Maintenance
Although you’ll have to keep your zebrina well-watered and humidified, maintenance for this species over the longer term is pretty easy and uninvolved.
Members of the Marantaceae family are fairly sensitive, and while a missed or late watering probably won’t kill your plant, it may show its displeasure with some brown-edged leaves.
Brown tips or edges on zebra calatheas are common, even for the most attentive houseplant parent.
When this happens, you can trim off a brown point or edge. However, pretend you are going into surgery – meaning you want your hands and your equipment to be clean.
Sterilize your scissors with rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide before trimming those brown points.
If needed, you can also remove entire leaves. Just cut them back at the base, near the soil surface.
Just like in my garden, I like to take a gentle, organic approach to fertilizing my houseplants.
If you’d like to give this a go as well, you can fertilize your zebra calathea with worm compost tea. If you don’t have a vermicomposting setup of your own yet, you can purchase worm compost tea sachets.
You soak the sachets in water for several hours, and then you use the compost-infused water to simultaneously water and fertilize your houseplants.
You can find organic worm compost tea sachets available for purchase from Earthworm Technologies via Amazon.
Your calathea will not need frequent repotting, and you’ll only need to do this every two to three years, as needed.
While G. zebrina does like moist soil, wet soil, on the other hand, can lead to root rot.
This problem is much more likely to occur when you grow a plant in a pot too large for the size of its roots, which is why infrequent repotting is preferred.
So how do you know when you do need to repot? First of all, if your calathea is drying out quickly and you find yourself needing to water it more often than usual, say two to three times a week, this may be a sign that you need to repot.
Roots emerging from the pot’s drainage holes or from the surface of the soil are another clue to look for, indicating that your houseplant is ready for a larger pot.
The best time to repot your zebra calathea is in springtime, when the plant starts a new phase of growth.
Gather your potting supplies beforehand – you’ll need a pot that is just one size up from the current pot size, as well as some potting soil.
Marantaceae species like zebra calathea require a potting medium that has good drainage but also good water retention, and this is where the addition of a peaty material helps.
Soil Mender’s 109 Potting Mix is available for purchase at Arbico Organics.
Once you have all of your supplies and are ready to repot, place a small amount of soil in the bottom of your new pot.
Remove your calathea from its old container, and loosen up its roots a bit so that it will transition better to its new home.
Place the calathea in the pot – if it sits too low in the pot, add a bit more soil, or if it sits too high, remove a little soil.
It’s a good idea to leave a space of about half an inch between the surface of the soil and the rim of the pot. Readjust your plant as needed to achieve this.
Fill around the edges with potting medium, and water in your freshly repotted plant.
Zebrina calathea is a fairly sensitive species. If you are late for a watering, you may start to notice browning leaf tips or edges, as mentioned above in the pruning section of this article.
Leaves that have turned crispy in this way won’t green up again once you correct your watering frequency, but new ones will look fresh and green.
However, there are other reasons for these crispy edges or tips to occur – you can learn more about some of the causes of brown leaves on prayer plants in our article.
If you really neglect your watering routine for too long with this houseplant, it will let you know by rolling its leaves up toward the midrib.
Without enough water, zebra calathea may also stop displaying nyctinastic movements.
So, if you notice any of these things happening, be sure to review the growing recommendations in this guide to make sure you are providing the best possible care for your houseplant.
Where to Buy
If you’re ready to add a zebra calathea to your collection of houseplants, you’ll want to decide where to buy a specimen, and the following will provide you with a few recommendations.
Keep in mind that this is a slow-growing species, but it will eventually reach three feet tall and three feet wide. When you’re ready to purchase a specimen of your own, choose the size that will work best in your home.
If you’re looking for a specimen to enclose in a terrarium, you may want to start small.
You’ll find a petite starter plant in a two-and-a-half-inch pot from Hirt’s Gardens available via Walmart.
Mid-sized plants in four-inch pots may still be able to fit inside some terrariums, or they can easily grace your workspace.
You can purchase a live plant in a four-inch pot from California Tropicals via Amazon.
If you’re looking for a calathea zebrina to be a floor-sized specimen, start with a plant in a six-inch pot or something larger.
You’ll find a live plant of this size available for purchase from California Tropicals via Amazon.
Managing Pests and Disease
Like the other members of the Marantaceae family, G. zebrina is not particularly prone to pests or disease. In fact, it’s quite low maintenance in this respect.
However, it’s good to know what to be on the lookout for on the rare chance that one of these problems occurs among your houseplants.
Insects sometimes ride in on newly acquired houseplants or on those that were spending the summer months outdoors. Here are some of the most common insects to affect zebra calatheas.
Have you ever noticed a fluffy residue on one of your houseplants? Unless you’ve been rubbing your wool sweaters against your plants, that was a sign of mealybug infestation.
These fluffy-looking white insects will suck valuable nutrients from your calatheas, leaving them malnourished and weak. And mealybugs secrete honeydew onto stems and leaves, which can give fungal organisms a foothold.
You have options when it comes to treating this type of infestation. Learn more about controlling mealybugs in our article.
While mealybugs look like fluffs of fur or hair that are stuck to your houseplant, scale may make you think bits of dirt have become lodged on leaves and stems.
These pests also suck nutrients from plants, preventing them from thriving.
And some scale insects secrete honeydew, posing a potential risk of fungal disease.
There are many different types of scale insects. Make sure to read our article on identifying and controlling scale if these pests have infested your houseplant.
Spider mites are miniscule arachnids that can infest houseplants. Related to other types of mites and ticks, spider mites create webs, which are often the first sign an unlucky plant owner notices when these guys set up camp.
Another sign that spider mites are attacking your cherished zebra calathea may be stippled leaves.
Want to learn how to inspect your plants for spider mites – and get tips on controlling these pests? Read our article on detecting and controlling spider mites.
Luckily, disease is rare in calatheas, but here’s what to look out for:
Cucumber Mosaic Virus
Similar to turnip mosaic virus, cucumber mosaic virus can create jagged yellow patterns on leaves.
There is no chemical control for this virus, so the best way to fight it is through prevention. Wash your hands and all tools before handling your houseplants, and sanitize your tools between specimens.
While this virus may only cause cosmetic damage, cautious plant owners may want to dispose of infected specimens to prevent it from spreading to other houseplants.
Helminthosporium Leaf Spot
Helminthosporium leaf spot disease may be caused by various fungal organisms, such as Drechslera and Bipolaris species. If you notice lesions on the leaves of your zebra calathea, this fungal disease may be the cause.
The lesions are generally brown or tan with a yellow halo, growing larger as the disease progresses.
Wet conditions combined with mild temperatures put plants at higher risk for this disease, so to keep your houseplants safe, only spritz their leaves in the morning so that they have time to dry before the temperature falls at night.
Root rot is a disease that can occur when houseplants are overwatered, left to sit in standing water, or if they lack adequate drainage.
A common sign that will announce this problem to most plant parents is the appearance of yellow leaves.
What causes this disease? The soil stays so wet that the plant’s roots are deprived of oxygen, causing them to rot. Eventually, the houseplant will die from dehydration.
Ironic, isn’t it? Don’t you think?
The number one way to prevent this disease is by being an attentive houseplant parent – but not an overly attentive one.
If you have identified root rot as an issue, repot your zebra calathea in a similarly sized pot with fresh potting soil. But before you do, try to remove as much soil as possible from the roots, and prune off any that are dead or damaged.
Also make sure to address whatever problems were leading to soggy soil, whether they were overwatering, insufficient drainage, or no drainage at all.
Along with root rot, there are other potential causes for yellow leaves on zebra calatheas. Learn more about troubleshooting yellow leaves on prayer plants in our article.
Now that we have gotten past the worst-case scenarios, we can relax. With the right care, you will not be likely to have issues with your houseplant, and instead, you can focus on how best to enjoy it in your home.
Zebrina calathea makes a wonderful foliage houseplant, but it can also be used in interiorscapes, large indoor vegetative installations that are sometimes featured in malls or office buildings.
As a nontoxic houseplant, it is safe for households with curious pets or kids.
And if you’re looking for a houseplant to improve air quality, it may interest you to know that G. zebrina has the potential to help to reduce CO2 levels indoors.
Quick Reference Growing Guide
|Plant Type:||Evergreen herbaceous perennial||Flower/Foliage Color:||Purple and white/light and dark green|
|Native to:||Brazil||Soil Type:||Peaty, rich|
|Hardiness (USDA Zone):||10b-11||Soil pH:||6.1-7.8|
|Exposure:||Medium indirect light.||Soil Drainage:||Well-draining|
|Time to Maturity:||5-10 years||Companion Planting:||Begonia, monstera, orchid, philodendron, pilea, snake plant, spider plant|
|Height:||3 feet||Uses:||Ornamental houseplant; outdoor foliage plant in Zones 10b-11|
|Maintenance:||Moderate||Genus:||Goeppertia (aka Calathea|
|Tolerance:||Humidity, low light||Species:||Zebrina|
|Common Pests:||Aphids, fungus gnats, mealybugs, root knot nematodes, scale, spider mites||Common Diseases:||Cucumber mosaic virus, helminthosporium leaf spot, pyricularia leaf spot, root rot|
A Houseplant Worth Its Stripes
You should now know how to keep your zebra calathea happy so it can shrug off its fussy reputation – provide it with medium, indirect light; water regularly; and provide a bit of extra humidity if your home needs it.
In return, G. zebrina will charm your home with lovely, velvety foliage, and a daily bedtime and wake-up routine as it raises and lowers its striped leaves.
Have you tried growing this houseplant before? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments. And if you’re a new zebra calathea owner, feel free to show off your plant baby pics there too!
If you still have houseplants on your mind, here are a few other articles that might be of interest:
About Kristina Hicks-Hamblin
Kristina Hicks-Hamblin lives on a dryland permaculture homestead in the high desert of Utah. Originally from the temperate suburbs of North Carolina, she enjoys discovering ways to meet a climate challenge. She is a Certified Permaculture Designer and a Building Biology Environmental Consultant, and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Kristina loves the challenges of dryland gardening and teaching others to use climate compatible gardening techniques, and she strives towards creating gardens where there are as many birds and bees as there are edibles. Kristina considers it a point of pride that she spends more money on seeds each year than she does on clothes.