I recently saw someone describe their Calathea as "crispy and cranky," and I feel like this sums up what I hear most from customers who love Calatheas but find them difficult to care for.
I'm going to explain in this comprehensive care guide, the reasons why these beautiful houseplants, can act the way they do and what you can do to help them thrive. If you've followed me for a while, you would have heard me share my number one top tip to plant care and Calatheas help to highlight this tip perfectly.
It's as simple as this. Find out as much as you can about a plant's origin. This is where they naturally thrive and therefore the conditions that make them happy. You can google "natural habitat" or "place of origin" and find out so much about your plants ideal conditions. This is what I found about Calatheas:
"Calathea naturally grows in South American jungles/tropical rainforests. In its natural habitat, the Calathea is used to survive under a canopy of leaves from large trees, where there is little to no sunlight. It is therefore that this plant is also known as a shadow plant."
So, it's no wonder that they are "crispy and cranky," living in our homes. When I troubleshoot a Calathea issue with a customer, I often find that they have the plant in a bright room, sometimes in sunlight. This is not what this plant loves, so it's going to show signs of distress. There isn't abundant sunlight in jungles/tropical rainforests and there also isn't abundant humidity in our dry homes. This is why they go crispy! We are not replicating the environment that they thrive in.
So now I've cleared that up, I want to be clear on what you need to do, to keep these happy. But I also want to stress that this is going to take some deliberate action on your part. If you are the kind of plant parent who wants a plant that you check on periodically (when you remember) and you expect it to adapt to the conditions of your home, then this is not the plant for you! This is going to sound a little brutal, but I feel the need to stand up for these beautiful plants. If you choose to have a Calathea and you don't endeavor to replicate its natural environment, it's actually your fault that the plant throws a tantrum, not the plants! It would be like throwing you in the Antarctic in your underwear and expecting you to be happy. Brutal? Yes. But hopefully I've made my point here. Let's take a closer look on how we replicate their natural environment.
What lighting do Calatheas like?
If you've been looking for a low light lover, then a Calathea is a good option. Now I don't mean a cupboard with no natural light, but these are perfect for your lower light rooms, well back from a window, where no sunlight is going to get anywhere near them. Their preference is a room with low-medium light. They need enough light to ensure that the soil doesn't remain super soggy wet after watering. A plants watering needs, are dependent on the light levels. The brighter the room, the more frequent a plant will require watering. If the pattern on their beautiful leaves starts to fade or the leaves turn crispy, the light could be too bright.
How often should I water my Calathea?
The answer to this question is not one that you likely want to hear...as it depends! It depends on the lighting - low or medium, it depends on the season - cooler or warmer months and it depends on how/if you heat your home. Plants should never be watered to a schedule, but understanding what it likes and checking the soil, will help you to determine if it's ready for its next drink.
Calatheas prefer consistently moist soil. I use the analogy of a dishcloth, dunked in water and then wrung out. So it’s still damp but not soggy wet. You therefore want the soil to dry a little, but not completely in between watering.
Calathea’s also love high humidity. A warm room with lots of moisture. You can achieve a higher humidity by grouping plants together, placing on a peeble tray with the waterline under the peebles, using a humidifier or placing the plant in a glass tank, such as a fish tank (complete with lid, to trap the moisture). Regular misting will also help, but this alone will likely not be enough and you may still see crispy edges.
It’s important to ensure that your Calathea doesn’t sit in soggy wet soil for prolonged periods. You will also want it to be in good draining soil, a mixture of 3 parts potting mix to 1 part perlite would be perfect. People often overwater their Calathea and this can lead to root rot which is hard to reverse.
Why are the leaves of my calathea curling?
This is usually a sign that there is a watering issue - either too much or not enough. If the soil feels wet, it’s likely that you’ve overwatered. If this is a one off and not consistent overwatering (which will inevitably lead to irreversible root rot), then you can correct this by moving the plant to a lighter spot (out of sunlight), or placing tampons in the soil to soak up the excess water. If the soil is dry, give it a good drink and see if the leaves uncurl in a few hours. Leaf droop is also an indication of underwatering.
Your Calathea also prefers consistent temperatures and will likely throw a paddy if there are huge temperature fluctuations. This is why your Calathea may appear unhappy during the winter months as their preference is somewhere on the warmer side. Chances are, if you’re comfortable, your Calathea will be happy too!
Calathea are prone to bugs
Sad but true I’m afraid. These beautiful plants are prone to mealy bugs and spidermites in particular. Regularly check the leaves for signs of infestation, as they are hard to spot and early intervention is definitely needed if you’re wanting to save your plant. The leaves are usually the first sign that there may be unwanted guests. Leaf discolouration, or small round orange dots may appear. You may also see what looks like a layer of gritty dust, this is common for spidermites. Mealy bugs hide in the crevices and look like small balls of cotton wool. They are sneaky critters and not easy to spot in the early stages.
Once spotted, get onto treatment fast. Either use a neem oil or houseplant insect spray. Ensure you reduce as much stress as possible, such as reducing large temperature fluctuations and not repotting whilst treatment is underway. This will give the plant more of a chance to bounce back to health.
Are Calathea’s safe for pets?
Not only are these plants gorgeous to look at, they’re also safe for your pets, should they happen to ingest them. Yay!
I hope this comprehensive guide has helped you to feel more confident about caring for your Calathea. Yes they take a little more extra care than some houseplants, but in my opinion, they’re worth the extra tender loving care.
I urge you to be patient with these guys, get to know what they love and I promise you, they’ll love you back and delight you with their stunning beauty. Besides, isn’t it so much more rewarding to master a plant that’s a little more tricky than one that is happy go lucky all of the time? It makes us feel so proud when we get it right.
Give Calathea another chance! I be-leaf you can do it!