Green Culture Singapore
Feature Article for June 2006
Pictures contributed by
National Parks Board (NParks),
Gloria Chay (GC), Ryan Su (RS) & Wilson Wong (WW)
Text by Wilson Wong
Edited by Ryan Su & Lynnette Terh
Online on 24 June 2006

The Marantaceae consists of herbaceous perennials that are native to tropical regions of America and Africa where the climate is hot and humid. The family consists of 31 genera, of which a handful, namely - Calathea, Ctenanthe, Maranta, Stromanthe and Thaumatococcus - are commonly grown here.

The Marantaceae is sometimes called the "Prayer Plant" and to a lesser extent, the "Arrowroot" family. The basis behind the former name is that many species within this family exhibit a unique habit of folding up their leaves at dusk, by means of a tiny joint in the leaf stalk. Consequently, the leaves appear like hands put together in prayer.

Prayer plants share a common rhizomatous growth habit and most of them are valued for their decorative foliage. Numerous species and cultivars of Calathea, Ctenanthe, Maranta, Stromanthe resemble each other so closely that it is difficult to tell them apart.

For plant lovers with an outdoor garden, one can choose to grow the taller prayer plants like the flowering Calathea species. These plants can grow into handsome specimens, which can reach a towering height of about 2 m! Due to their vast height, they are not really recommended for apartment gardeners as the plants' growth would be constrained by the ceiling above.

The smaller and compact growing prayer plants that grow to 1 m or less make very attractive foliage houseplants. They are ideal for lining a planter box as they fill the space beneath taller plants and soften the edges of the planter. They can also be grown inside cache pots as specimen plants. For the latter purpose, use a plain-looking, light coloured pot so as to not steal the limelight away from the plant. You can also use these plants as outdoor fillers or groundcover.


The genus Calathea, native to tropical America, consists of about 100 species largely valued for their decorative foliage. The true flowers of most Calatheas are tiny and insignificant but it is the showy bracts produced by some species that attract attention. The name 'Calathea' is dervied from the Greek word 'kalathos' which means 'basket' - in reference to the inflorescences borne by showy species.

The Flowering Calatheas

Although these tall-growing species have rather green and plain-looking paddle-shaped leaves, they produce rather long lasting and intriguing looking inflorescences that have been described to look like beehives, rattlesnake tails, pagodas or even cigars! It is therefore not unusual to find them being used for flower arrangements. Many species in this group are still considered as 'exotics' and cannot be found on sale in nurseries here. Fortunately, many of these species are available for sale by online nurseries where their rhizomes can thus be bought.

Calathea burle-marxii

Named after the one of the world's most eminent landscape architects, Roberto Burle Marx, Calathea burle-marxii produces much sought after beehive-shaped bracts that can be iridescent blue, white or jade green, as such, the plants are known by the names 'Blue Ice', 'White Ice' and 'Green Ice' respectively. Growing to a maximum height of about 1.5 m, Calathea. burle-marxii needs to be grown in a cool, shady spot in the lowland tropics and growth is reported to be exceedingly slow. Not commonly on sale in local nurseries.

(Picture - RS)

Calathea casapito

Currently, a rare collector's item, Calathea casapito sends up inflorescences that look like golden pagodas. Plants can attain a height of 1.5 m tall. Rhizomes are only available via mail order.

Calathea crocata

Known as the 'Eternal Flame' and for being a commonly grown houseplant in the West, Calathea crocata is not common here unless a nursery imports it from Holland. Calathea crocata has dark green elliptical leaves with maroon undersides. The inflorescences are globular in shape and orange, which appear like burning torches that are held well above the bushy foliage.

Calathea crotalifera

Due to the inflorescence's striking resemblence to the real thing, Calathea crotalifera is commonly referred to as the 'Rattlesnake Calathea'. Small white flowers peek out between the long-lasting bracts pink, golden yellow, green or orange-red bracts. Plants can attain a height of 2 m. Both yellow and green rattlesnake Calathea species are easy to find in local nurseries.

(Picture - GC)

Calathea loesneri

A delightful, flowering Calathea that is much smaller in size compared to the towering giants. Plants adopt a bushy habit and grow to about 60 cm in height. The leaves of Calathea loesneri have an irregular, yellowish-green feathering that spreads outwards from the midrib while their undersides are purple. Inflorescences are held well above the turf of leaves and resemble little pink lotuses. It can be found occasionally in local nurseries.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea lutea

Calathea lutea can grow to a height of 2.5 m and produces cigar-shaped bracts. The paddle-shaped leaves have reflective silver undersides. The most common cultivar found locally produces brownish bracts.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea marantina

Calathea marantina bears almost black or orange cigar-shaped bracts that closely resemble those of Calathea lutea. Plants grow to a height of 2.5 m. An uncommon species that is available for sale only via online nurseries.

The Foliage Calatheas

The flowers of this group of Calathea are usually small and insignificant but they compensate by their wildy colourful and unique leaf variegation and pattern. Their elliptical-shaped leaves can either be adorned with splashes or swirls of several colours or intricate lines that contrast against a usually darker background. Others have leaves that are encircled by a silver or whitish ring, which seems to have been deliberately hand painted on their centers. The leaf margins of some species can be wavy too. Below is a list of foliage Calathea found on sale in local nurseries at the time of writing. Sports of Calathea that occur during tissue culture resemble their parents so closely that accurate identification is made much more difficult.

Calathea 'Eclipse'

A compact plant that produces large leaves which are elliptical in shape and a dark glossy green. A silvery, irregular brushstroke pattern encircles the interior of each leaf. Mid rib is also silver with no pattern spreading from it. Underside of leaves is maroon. Grows to about 60 cm tall.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea lancifolia

Also known as Calathea insignis, Calathea lancifolia has sword-like (lanceolate) leaves that possess undulating edges. Dark green elliptical bands radiate from the midrib on the upper side of the leaves. The undersides are a rich purple. Described in Western houseplant books as the "rattlesnake plant" and grows to a height of 40 cm.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea makoyana

Known as the Peacock Plant due to the distinctive color patterns on both sides of its leaves which somewhat resemble the patterns on a peacock feather. Calathea makoyana is perhaps the first foliage Calathea that one can come across. A bushy plant that can attain a height of 40 cm.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea mirabilis

A bushy Calathea which has unequal sided elliptical leaves tapering off to a sharp end. A dark green feather pattern radiates from the mid rib against a largely grey background. A compact plant whose growth will conceal its wiry stems and pot. It will grow to height of about 30 cm.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea orbiculata

Calathea orbiculata, unlike others, has almost perfectly rounded leaves. The leaves have silvery white stripes against a green background on the top surface while the undersides are green. Slow-growing plant, which attains a height of about 30 cm.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea ornata

Calathea ornata has large, elliptical, dark green leaves with closely arranged, thin, pink lines that radiate from the mid rib. The underside of each leaf is maroon. Resembles Calathea majestica, except that Calathea ornata leaves are broader. Two common cultivars can be found on sale, namely, 'Roseo-lineata' and 'Sanderiana'. 'Sanderiana', shown left, is a bigger plant with broader, shorter leaves, which grows to a height of 1 m whereas 'Roseo-lineata' can grow only up to 60 cm. Unfortunately, the pink lines of Calathea ornata tend to fade as they mature.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea picturata

Calathea picturata 'Argentea' has a large silver patch with a feathered edge at the center of each semi-glossy leaf. The narrow elliptical leaves are maroon on their undersides and the plant grows to a height of 50 cm.

The top sides of the dark green, elliptical leaves of Calathea picturata 'Vandenheckei' are glossy and have a wide silver feathered stripe that runs through the entire length of the mid rib. It is then enclosed by a similarly coloured feathered ring. Leaves are maroon on the underside and the plant also grows to a height of 50 cm.

Top: Calathea picturata 'Argentea'
Bottom: Calathea picturata 'Vandenheckei'

(Pictures - WW)

Calathea roseo-picta

Large elliptical leaves that are dark green and glossy, with a distinctive pink midrib and white feathered ring on the leaf. Each leaf has a purple underside. Plants grow to about 60 cm. It has numerous sports of varying thickness within the feathered ring.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea rufibarba

Calathea rufibarba has wavy-edged, glossy, dark green leaves, which are purple on the underside. The stems are purple and covered with fine hairs. Plants grow as a tight clump and attain a height of about 40 cm.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea vaginata

A compact plant that grows to a height of about 20 cm and produces elliptical leaves with a largely grey background. The non-glossy leaves have a thin dark green margin and a pinkish mid rib, coupled with a similarly coloured blush in the center. The underside is maroon.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea veitchiana

Calathea veitchiana appears like a larger version of Calathea makoyana, where the leaves are much bigger. Grows up to a height of 1 m.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea warsewiczii

Calathea warsewiczii has velvety dark green, elliptical-shaped leaves adorned with light green brushstrokes that radiate from the mid rib on their upper surface. The leaves are maroon on the underside. Grows to a height of about 60 cm.

(Picture - WW)

Calathea zebrina

Commonly known as the 'Zebra Calathea', this plant has striking, velveteen foliage with contrasting "zebra" stripes against a green background. The plant can reach a height of 90 cm.

(Picture - WW)

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