How to Grow and Care for Calathea Zebrina (Zebra Plant)

The calathea zebrina is commonly known as the zebra plant. One look at it and you can quickly tell why.

Its most striking feature are the light green stripes that adorned the darker green leaves. And, if you turn the leaves over, you’ll see they have dark red hue to them.

Incidentally, zebrina is a latin word that means “stripes like a zebra”, which is an appropriate way of describing the plant’s foliage.

In addition to its looks, don’t be surprised when you see its leaves fold up at night. The plant is a member of the Marantaceae family which makes it closely related to the prayer plant. As such, you’ll see it doing its “prayer pose” when the light dims.

The plant itself gets to between 1 to 3 feet tall when grown indoors, while its leaves will take center stage growing up to t to 1.5 feet long.

Being natives of the rainforests in Brazil, the calathea zebrina likes warm, humid conditions that are moist. So, you’ll want to give it similar conditions for optimum growth.

Calathea Zebrina Plant Care

Calathea Zebrina Light

The calathea zebrina grows best in medium to bright, indirect light. While bright light brings out the amazing colors in its leaves, it doesn’t need a lot of it to grow well. That’s because in its native environment, it lives under the shade of larger trees. Thus, it is used to dapple or diffused light. As such, as long as it gets medium light indoors, it will be happy.

However, the most important thing to remember with your zebra plant is that you don’t want to keep it under direct sunlight. Doing so will damage its leaves burning them. So, when you see brown blotches on the leaves or their tips, it is a sign of too much direct sun. Similarly, the leaves can get lighter in color as they get bleached.

On the other hand, the plant will likewise tell you if it is not getting enough light. Too little light will cause its beautiful leaf patterns to get lighter. The good news is, when you move it to brighter light, the leaves will recover.

As such, it is a good ides to experiment were you put the plant to find the spot where its foliage produces the most vibrant colors.

This makes the an east or north facing windows the best places to put your zebra plant.

 

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Calathea Zebrina Temperature & Humidity

Because the calathea zebrina is native to tropical regions, it likes moderate to warm weather. This makes 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit its sweet spot. Fortunately, this also happens to be the temperature most homes have. This makes them perfect houseplant to grow indoors.

However, if you live in areas that experience winters, it also means that they’re not suited to being grown outdoors all year round. You can bring them out for the summer. But, once the temperature drops into the low 50s they’ll start to struggle. As such, as the mercury nears 55 to 60 degrees sometime in the fall, it is time to bring them indoors.

Conditions that are too cold or it not enough water will cause your calathea zebrina’s leaves to wilt. As such, you’ll want to check what the reading on your thermostat says. If the temperature is above 55 or 60, then you’ll want to check the water situation.

Otherwise, move your plant to somewhere warmer.

In addition to the temperature, another thing you want to watch out for is drafts. Warm or cold drafts are both no-no’s. Ideally, your calathea zebrina is happiest when the temperature is kept constant.

So, when either of these conditions happen too often, you might see its leaves curl or have brown edges (warm drafts). With cold drafts, its leaves will get yellowish and wilt.

Its tropical nature also means that it needs high humidity to thrive. Ideally, it likes relative humidity to be at 60% or higher. Unlike temperature, this is tricker for most homes, especially during the winter when air gets dry.

As such, it is important to make proper adjustments. Otherwise, you’ll see the plant struggle and the tips of its leaves turn brown or curl up.

calathea zebrina

source: wikimedia commons

 

Watering

 

Watering is by far the most challenging aspect of caring for your calathea zebrina. That’s because it thrives in moist soil that isn’t soggy. Thus, finding the balance between the two is the tricky part.

Given too much water, the plant is at risk of root rot. As such, you do not want to overwater it. Likewise, it is not a good idea to let it sit in water for long periods of time.

But, allowing the soil to completely dry out is also a no-no. When this happens, your zebra plant’s leaves will curl, a sure sign that it is experiences distress.

The best way to avoid either extreme is to understand how the weather and the plant’s growing seasons affect evaporation and its water consumption.

In the warmer months, which is also when the plant is actively growing, you will need to water more often. Heat causes more evaporation. Active growth means it drinks more.

In contrast, you’ll only need to water sparingly during the colder months. Cold climates slow down evaporation. And, during this time, the plant is in its “rest phase”.

 

How to Water Calathea Zebrina

Because of all these changing factors, the best way to know when to water is to check the soil. If the top inch of soil is dry, it is time to water. If it is still moist, wait a while before testing again.

When you do water the plant, you want to water it thoroughly. This ensures that the moisture reaches the roots at the bottom of the soil.

Thus, you want to pour water on the soil until the liquid starts dripping from the pots drainage holes. This ensures the entire rootball is soaked. Then, allow any excess moisture to drip out. You’ll need to wait between 5 to 10 minutes until this stops, depending on how big the pot is.

The latter step ensures that the soil is not waterlogged.

 

Chemicals in the Water

Your calathea zebrina is sensitive to fluoride, chlorine and other chemicals in water. As such, you don’t want to use hard water when watering this plant. This means tap water is not a good idea since most cities add these chemicals to it.

Instead, use rainwater distilled or filtered water. Rainwater is the best option. In addition to being natural, it is also free. The next best option is to let tap water sit at room temperature overnight. This allows the chemicals to evaporate. So, you can use it safely.

Both methods are free which is why I highly recommend them over distilled or filtered water.

 

Soil

Calathea zebrina need moist, well draining soil. It cannot tolerate wet, soggy soil. And, you should never allow the soil to dry out.

Thus, you have a many options here.

  • If you want to buy something out of the box, get African violet mix. It is readily available in garden supply stores. And, it checks all the boxes your zebra plant needs. Just follow the instructions. The biggest advantage here is you don’t need to mix ingredients yourself or experiment. It’s simple and ready made for you.
  • Many experienced gardeners will want to make their own potting mixes. This gives them the freedom to adjust it to their preferences. If you prefer do it yourself potting mix recipes, a good one for your calathea zebrina is mixing 2 parts of peat with 2 parts of perlite and 1 part potting soil. There are many other ways you can mix different ingredients as well. Although this is simple and works really well.

The key here is that you want the soil to retain enough water without overdoing it. This allows the mixture to give enough hydration and nutrients to your plant. But, not let it sit in water for too long.

 

Fertilizing

From spring to fall, feed your zebra plant with a balanced houseplant fertilizer diluted to half or a quarter strength. You only need to do so once every two or four weeks.

Because overfertilizing is a lot worse that under fertilizing, always start with the lower dosage and observe your plant. If it isn’t growing as much as it should gradually add until you get the optimal results.

This way you are able to adjust without damaging the plant. If you go from a lot of fertilizer and try to move down, you’ll likely see problems come up before you can adjust. That’s not a good way to do things.

Additionally, it is also a good idea to flush the soil once in a while. Since calatheas are vulnerable to fertilizer salt buildup in the soil, you want to flush these excess salt and minerals every few months.

To do so,

  • Water the soil slowly. You can use a hose or do it under the sink.
  • Allow the water to keep running for 3 to 5 minutes. This will cause the liquid to drip through the holes under the pot. But, along with it will be some dirt, soil and the salt build up.
  • Then, let the plant drain. Here you want to wait until it stops dripping, This takes another 5 to 10 minutes so you can do something else while it drips.
  • After the liquid is fully drained, return the plant to its regular spot.

 

Pruning Calathea Zebrina

Your zerba plant doesn’t require much pruning. For the most part you will be trimming away the damaged, dying, discolored or diseased leaves. The reason for doing this are both aesthetic and health.

Your plant looks better without these leaves. But, removing them also allows it to focus on new growth as opposed to spending resources and energy or dead or dying foliage.

When pruning, always make sure to use sterilized tools.

 

Calathea Zebrina Propagation

The best way to propagate your calathea zebrina is via division. Unfortunately, stem cutting doesn’t work with this plant.

The good news is, division is fairly straightforward. But, you need to get used to it because it involves separating part of the rootball.

Here’s how to propagate calathea zebrina through division.

  • Follow the steps below in the repotting section to take the plant out of the container.
  • Once out you want to pick out stems that are somewhat grown. Remember, you only want to divide mature mother plants. Additionally, division is a great way of controlling or reducing the size of the parent plant since you take a part of it off.
  • Once you’ve chosen a segment, carefully separate that section from the main rootball. You can use your hands or a sterilized knife.
  • Once divided, fill the new pot and current pot with fresh potting soil.
  • Then insert both plants into their respective containers.
  • Fill the remaining space with soil
  • Water both plants

 

Transplanting & Repotting

Spring is the best time to repot your calathea zebrina whenever the need arises. You’ll also want to time it together with propagation (if you want to propagate) because the plant doesn’t like being moved. Doing the two together reduces the stress and shock it experiences.

As such, the only time you want to repot your zebra plant is when it has outgrown its pot. You’ll be able to tell because roots will start showing up from under the container.

How to Repot Calathea Zebrina

  • Choose a slightly larger container. Go up only 1 to 2 sizes. You can likewise choose a pot that is porous. This allows water to seep out in little amounts. Thus, helping to prevent waterlogging.
  • In addition to a new pot, you always want to have fresh potting soil on hand. Again, do go for well draining soil. An African violet mix or your own recipe (see soil section above for one) will work. Make sure you have enough soil to fill the new pot. If you are propagating the plant, you need extra soil for the other container as well.

Now it’s time to get to work.

  • Fill the pot/s with soil up to about a quarter or a third. You can estimate it by placing the plant beside it to see how much soil you need to put below.
  • Carefully take the plant out of its container.
  • Brush away excess soil. Also, inspect the roots. Untangle any roots and trim off unhealthy looking ones.
  • Insert the plant into the new container and fill the extra space with soil. You want the plant to stand out of the new pot at the same height it did in the old pot.
  • Water the soil thoroughly.

 

Toxicity

Calathea zebrina are safe for your pets and young kids. So, you don’t need to take extra precautions it trying to keep them away from curious animals and little children.

 

Pests and Diseases

The zebra plant is fairly resistant to both disease and pests. This is why you want to keep it healthy. And, the best way to do so is to give it the proper requirements above.

However, because it likes moist conditions, the risk of overwatering is always there. Thus, its biggest enemy as far as disease goes is root rot. This means you always need to be vigilant when its comes to watering.

  • A few symptoms of potential root rot include:
  • Parts of the plant become black and look rotted.
  • The lower part becomes mushy and soggy looking
  • Leaves turn dark and black in color
  • When you pull up to roots, you’ll see black, mushy roots
  • A weak and dying plant

Caught early root rot can be treated by trimming off the affected roots and repotting it. While not easy, it gives your plant a chance to recover and revive.

That said, prevention is always better, which is why a lot of the sections above talk about water and drainage.

When it comes to pests, spider mties, aphids, mealybugs and scale are the most common. Again, here early detection is key because pests tend to spread to other nearby plants. So, if one plant is infected, always check those beside it as well.

With pests, treatment will involved insecticidal soap and water. You can also use neem oil. For scale, horticultural oil works well.

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