Donna PorterIt's a Wonderful World of Plants

Marantaceae – One Shady Family


By Donna Porter

Allow me to introduce you to one of the shadiest families I know of – the Marantaceae Family.  They love dark, damp, hummusy places….. but, are actually a fine and honorable group of plants that have even been known to pray.  These bold beauties exult and thrive in the shade, where their colors are more pronounced, rich and vibrant.  There simply could not be a lovelier selection of shade- loving plants than those that are found in the Marantaceae Family.  It is commonly known as the Prayer Plant Family due to the fact that a few of the species of this family (mainly Maranta leuconeura, commonly called “Prayer Plant”) rolls together its leaf edges and slants upward, like praying hands, in response to darkness.  This lengthwise cupping of the leaf is made possible due to a specialized joint on the leaf’s petiole (seen at the base of the leaf) called the pulvinus. The pulvinus allows this movement in the leaf and also makes for easy identification of this family.

The Marantaceae (Maranta for short) Family is composed of 30 genera and nearly 500 species of plants mostly all originating in moist tropical forest or wetlands.  Of the 30 genera, the most popular is by far the Calatheas (Calateas in Spanish) with nearly 300 species alone, followed by Ctenanthe (tee-NANTH-ee) and Stromanthe. The showy “flowers” of this family are, as with many of the tropical plants, the showy bract. Moist, well-drained, humus- rich, organic soil best suits most plants in this family. 

Members of this family, similar to those in the Aroid Family, are popular foliage plants that are shipped world-wide for use as houseplants and in interior landscapes due to their low-light requirements.  Marantas though, are slightly more intolerant of low-humidity conditions and highly fluoridated waters, and show their displeasure with browning of their leaf edges or leaf tips.  Long periods of intense, direct sunlight and dryness will also have these same effects.

 But here in the tropics, where we can fortunately utilize such exquisite gems as Marantas in our exterior gardens, one can find, with a little searching, some of the most beautiful specimens of Marantas known to man.  (When searching in a vivero for Marantas, an obvious place to look would be under their shade cloth.  Also, ask for Calateas). Their bold and distinctly defined variegated leaves make them the show stoppers that they are. The pattern of the contrasting color is somewhat of an abstract, tree-shaped design that uses the leaves midrib (center vein) as its trunk.  Their leaves are typically variegated with two contrasting colors, and the leaf undersides of some species exhibit purple or maroon.  Slightly ruffled leaf edges on certain species adds another fine touch to their elegant natural form. 

Calathea zebrina is the most common Maranta that I have seen in the viveros and in the local landscapes.  This species, though, is highly intolerant of long, direct exposure to sunlight and is one that will curl its leaves up in response to dryness.  The rich, velvety leaves of C. zebrina are happiest in the moist and shady depths of a landscape, where they will flourish and reward you with a ravishing understory cover to your garden.    

Another easy to find species is Calathea concinna, which sports a light green, almost bluish leaf, with dark green, branch-like stripes. The thicker, heavier leaf texture of this species makes it more tolerant to some direct sun.  In the garden C. concinna adds an enormous amount of contrast, especially in mass, but as with any plant with highly ornate leaves, they should be placed alongside plain leafed plants as to not to detract from their uniqueness. 

Ctenanthe setosa has also been frequently spotted in viveros around the area as well as in gardens.   This is an easy to grow, very upright species that stands close to a 1 meter in height and its undersides are cloaked in purple.  It too has the attractive leaf pattern so commonly found in the Maranta Family.  

Undoubtedly, anyone who lives here in Costa Rica or has traveled the roadways of the country has certainly sighted the most popular native species of the Marantaceae Family, Calathea lutea.  Here in Costa Rica, the common Spanish name is Bijuaga.  Calathea lutea is easy to spot from a distance. It stands 3-4 meters in height and displays large, upright, Heliconia-type leaves that are white on the undersides. Even though it exhibits no intricate pattern on its leaf, its white underside characteristic makes it unmistakable in its identification. Its flower/bract is a brownish- yellow, cigar-shaped structure. 

 Another large and handsome Costa Rica native is Calathea crotalifera, also called Bijuaga by the locals.  This species has a very ornate, upright, yellow flower/bract which resembles the rattles of a Rattlesnake, thus attributing to its common English name of “Rattlesnake Plant”.  It is certainly the showier flower of these two native species.  The large, ovate leaves of both of these native species  are used in place of banana leaves for wrapping tamales, wrapping lunches-to-go, as umbrellas and even with some of the indigenous people, for wrapping their deceased prior to burial. Although these two native species can be spotted growing in sunny areas, their leaves are a healthier green when found in the shade. 

Most members of the Marantaceae family are generally easy to grow, have few insect pests and do well in containers.  Some of the species are small, if not petite, and would be easy to find a spot for within your home or office.  I recommend starting your own Maranta collection – or even just one.  This way you could continuously be awed by its simple, but magnificent beauty. 

There are just too many amazingly beautiful Marantas to attempt to define by words alone.  I await the day that all Quepolandians and its visitors will be able to see, and not only read about, all of these tropical beauties.   A superb collection of the Marantaceae Family will certainly grace those moist and shady niches at the future botanical garden. 

Donna is a Horticulturist and has been living and working in Manuel Antonio for 8 years.  She consults, designs, installs and maintains gardens for private homes and hotels and also develops botanical trails. Donna is the founder and first Director of the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks and is pursuing the development of a botanical garden in, and for, the Quepos area.   [email protected],  2777-5149