Friday, December 7, 2007

Neurotic (Maranta leuconeura erythroneura)

After my experiences with Calathea ornata, I swore off the whole Marantaceae family.1 Not that they aren't beautiful, but I couldn't face the heartbreak again. And that worked for a while, but I have limits, and anyway, I read somebody saying that Maranta was easier, in general, than Calathea, in general, so there was that tiny sliver of hope. And then I saw a small one for sale for like $3, and bought it "just as a test run." Because I am weak.

And, not to ruin the suspense or anything, but I didn't wind up having any serious problems with the test plant, so I bought another and potted them together, and everything seems to be fine. So hooray for me.

The main differences between the two are temperature, humidity, and ease of propagation, as far as I can tell, with Maranta being easier on all counts.2 The differences are not huge: you still don't want to cook or freeze your plant, and it's not impossible to propagate Calatheas either, but the humidity requirement does seem to be significantly more relaxed for Maranta. Both genera are a little difficult when it comes to watering: you never want them to actually dry out, but if you water too much, they're likely to have small fits. (Mine drops a leaf or two just about every time I water, though it grows them back faster than that, so we're good.)

What the plant is known for, though, is its habit of holding its leaves vertically at night and horizontally during the day, which goes by the charming and memorable technical name "photonasty."3 The other members of the Marantaceae do this too, to some degree, but it's most dramatic in Maranta. According to this site, which is actually about Ctenanthe (I think it's safe to generalize on this point, as closely related as the two genera are), the movement is driven by two light-sensitive pigments in the plant: one is sensitive to red light, and raises the leaves; the other is sensitive to blue light, and lowers them. (Presumably, if you shine purple light on the plant, it begins to flap its leaves and flies away.)4 The actual raising and lowering is accomplished by pumping water into, or out of, specialized structures at the base of the petioles.5

I looked and looked, but couldn't find any watchable time-lapse movies6 that covered a full 24-hour period; I did track down this one and this one, both of which are short, but long enough to give you the general idea.

As far as I'm aware, there's no definitive explanation yet for why they move, but it's not hard to see how it might be helpful: vertical leaves at night will catch dew and funnel it down toward the plant; horizontal leaves during the day make the best use of the light-collection surface. I prefer to think of it as a Maranta-specific form of neurosis, like the plant's practice of rolling up new leaves super-super tightly before unfurling them.

To go along with the special-effectiness of the time-lapse thing, Plants Are the Strangest People is in 3-D! for the very first time with this entry. The below photo works more or less like one of those Magic Eye pictures, in that you have to cross your eyes a bit in order to get it to work. If you can cross them such that features in one picture overlap the same features in the other one, you should be able to fool your brain into seeing it as a single three-dimensional image. It's not the most exciting three-dimensional image. But if this works for enough people, it could open the door to future pictures which are bigger, more detailed, more relevant, or whatever. So let me know if it works for you.

There is also a variety known as "Maranta leuconeura leuconeura," which is frequently referred to but never pictured. Besides that, the verbal descriptions of it (in the few places one can find descriptions) are pretty close to being word-for-word copies of one another, which makes me wonder. At work, we have the plant pictured below, which differs from the plant above only in that the ribs on the leaves are green instead of red: it's possible that this is the plant in question. It is also possible that it is not. The tag that comes with the plant only gives the ID "Maranta leuconeura 'Marisela'," which the sharp-eyed reader will have noticed is something different altogether. I like this plant, though, which we have at work. I haven't bought it yet, because among other things, I'm still waiting to see if the erythro version is going to make it through the winter. If it does, though, I'm all over this 'Marisela' thing.

UPDATE: (30 Jan 2010) These do need to be watched for pests, unfortunately. I've personally lost plants both to spider mites and to mealybugs, which happened soon enough after purchase in all cases that I've been convinced not to bother with this genus anymore. Were it not for Stromanthe, I wouldn't bother with the whole Marantaceae family, but so far, Stromanthe and I get along strangely well, so they're the exception.


Photo credits: all me.

1 (Which includes the genera Maranta, Calathea, Stromanthe, and Ctenanthe, though only the first three are sold commonly enough in my area to matter for swearing-off purposes.)
2 (It does, however, require a bit more in the way of grooming, since it grows more quickly, drops more leaves, and flowers more – this wouldn't be a big deal except that unlike many plants, Maranta leaves often don't detach cleanly when they die, and almost always have to be cut off. Calathea leaves don't either, really, but they're slower to drop leaves, grow leaves, and everything else, unlike the fast-living, pretty-corpse-leaving Marantas, so there's less to clean up.)
3 "Photonasty" technically refers to any movement of a plant part which depends on light but does not change according to the direction the light is coming from. In other words, when your Syngonium grows toward the window, that's phototropism, but when your Hibiscus opens its flowers in the morning and closes them at night, that's photonasty. I think.
4 (Kidding. Obviously. But wouldn't it be cool?)
5 Petiole: the "stem" that connects the leaf to the actual stem, or the rhizome, in those plants that grow from rhizomes.
6 (I found a couple unwatchable ones. One refused to load within a reasonable amount of time, and the other crashed my browser.)


Jordan said...

"(Presumably, if you shine purple light on the plant, it begins to flap its leaves and flies away.)"

You have a great sense of humor! Thank you for having such an educational, fun, and entertaining blog, I enjoy reading it!

Tracy said...

Love ur blog!! I can not get the 3D picture to look 3D....but I am wondering if I could open the picture up and make it bigger it might help. Perhaps a bigger picture? I see how it should work....I love those 3D things, so I think just a bigger picture might help.

mr_subjunctive said...

Hmmm. Well, the picture is small on purpose: when the pictures are bigger, you have to cross your eyes even harder to get things to line up with one another right.

The other thing that might be causing problems is, it's not the most dramatic picture even when you do get everything lined up properly.

I'm really not sure what to suggest here. Is anybody besides me able to get it to work?

MrBrownThumb said...


I became the guardian of one of these prater plants and I was going to blog about it today but came here to ask you about them since I've never grown one before.

The stereo photography is a cool bit. I've wanted to experiment with it. What I'd really like to do is have a blog where you'd need the 3-D glasses to view the pics. That would be awesome.

mr_subjunctive said...

The stereogram thing is pretty simple to do: you take one picture, move a couple inches to the right, and take another picture. Photoshop (in the generic sense: I actually use Irfanview in combination with MS Paint) the two pictures side-by-side, with the second one on the right, and resize it until it's small enough that you can cross your eyes and see the image in the center without hurting yourself. It takes a while to do, granted, but it's not like it's a ton of extra work.

fattypr said...

Hi! This is my first time on your blog, b/c I just bought the maranta loconeura erythroneura and was looking to read about it. Thanks for the links to time-lapse videos, as I can't wait to see them my new plant raise its leaves tonight.Great post! And the 3D pic did work for me.

mr_subjunctive said...

There must be something in the air, fattypr, 'cause I bought some today too. Our last shipment of plants (which came in yesterday) had a bunch of small rooted cuttings of M. l. 'Marisela,' so I went ahead and bought three and plan to plant them together.

Y'all come back, now.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say that while marantas haven't done great for me in the past, the 8" Exotic Angel Maranta 'Marisela' that I bought last year has turned out to be easy care. It grows faster than the others did and is less picky about watering. It's definitely worth trying.

Anonymous said...

Hi there Mr. S.!
Personally, I don't leave comments because I don’t think I have anything to add that the blogger would care for, but in your case I have to, for 2 reasons:
1º You have to know this: your blog is great! It’s fun and full of great information! So, thanks for sharing a little bit about yourself with so much humor and for sharing the more serious information about the plants, which sort of is really what brought us here to begin with:);
2º This post is about a plant that I really love and I had to (I just had to even if you still don’t care) say something about it: it really is easy to care for. I have mine for 3 years now and she only complained once, on the first year, about being dry. The leaf tips got a little dry so I cut them off. I also became a lot more intelligent and looked up information about how to water it and feed it and stuff. She completely forgave me for my stupidity and as grown and became very luxuous and beautifully and doesn't complain or asks for anything;
You say yours drops leaves occasionally. Mine as never, ever droped a leaf yet! I assume its very weird and you have no reason to believe it, but its true never the less. She still has the cut-of-at-the-tips leafs from the fist year I got her! The 5 leafs that have come of (in 3 years, mind you!) were pulled by me, because she simply won’t part with them. And the first 2 I actually allowed to go really, really, reaaaaaaly dry and brown (just to see if they would fall of, but nooooooooooooooo);
It propagates in water in 2 days! I didn’t know it could be a climber and so I didn’t put any support for her. So, one branch sort of fell of the pot and detached itself a little from the main branch, but not completely. By the time I noticed it going limp (something that happened overnight actually) I cut it of completely and put it in a water glass and waited for it to die (my relation with plants is sort of … how can I say it?.... special? I think of them as persons and so I just can’t throw them in the garbage unless they are really dead. If not, I keep them there and try to “fix” them and, basically, sometimes, just wach them die. But, hey, at least they die at home, right?). In two days it was better than new, had this 2 cutes small roots, and became one of my very own favorite little pieces of greenery in the jungle I now have:) (the other favorites being of the same family: 2 Calatheas)
This plant is great! The leafs are beautiful, its not that demanding, you can fill up a house with it if you like, give cuttings to other people (which, selfish as I am, I don’t because I like it so much and don’t trust others to give it the same love!*blush*). Basically… well, it’s a great beautiful plant!
(Sorry for the looooooooong testament!)

Marantaceae Lover

Anonymous said...

Here you go:


FelixBodhi said...

Hello! I wanted to share my experience with this plant. I boss gave me this plant back around 2000 or 2001. I don't know much about plants and don't have a green thumb but it lived in my office until I was laid off in 2003. After that I was kinda homeless and I had a friend care for it for a while. In her apartment, it had almost no natural sunlight (it was a garden level apartment).

In 2005, we moved into a house and I thought the plant was done for. What few leaves it had fell off shortly after the move, so there was nothing left. I kept the soil moist in the vain hope that there was something left. I guess there was. It came back to life and has been doing quite well. Sometimes it gets too dry and many of the leaves shrivel up, but if I prune it and give it a bath (just run lots of water through it), it perks right up and sprouts lots of new leaves.

BTW, I think the 3-D image is great!

Julie said...

While a little tempermental, this plant is not that hard to grow if you keep it out of direct sunlight and know that it will lose leaves during the dormant period. But as the previous poster stated, a good soak in the growing season is very welcome and the plant will usually spring back to life. If you get it right, it will reward you with the cutest little pinkish purple trumpet shaped flowers you have ever seen. Do not give up on this one.

Oh, and there is another prayer plant called "rabbit foot" or "hare tracks". It is a little harder to grow and will definitely lose all of its leaves in winter. But just when you think it is dead and gone, it sends out shoots in the spring and by fall the pot will be full of leaves.

JV said...

Yep, these plants can be very hardy. I pulled one out of the dumpster a few years ago, all dead and pot-less, and its managed to flower several times for me so far. Its one of the red-veined varieties, and its got little purple flowers. I've got another one, like the previous poster mentioned, that has no obvious veins. It just has the spots for coloration, but its flowers are very petite little white ones, and they smell really good. I feed all my maranta's with miracle-gro, water often and keep them out of direct sunlight. They reward me with leaves 8 inches long and nearly year-long flowers!

Ryan said...

Have you seen Marantas bloom? I was curious about the asymmetrical flowers, so I checked out Flora of North America. ( Asymmetry is very rare in flowers, and usually interesting.

Apparently asymmetrical flowers are a character of the family. The flowers grow in pairs on the inflorescence, and the two flowers of the pair are mirror images of one another. The patterned leaves that are so dramatic in Calathea and Maranta are also common throughout the family: 20% of all species have leaf patterning. This provokes some thought about natural variegation. Very cool!

Ryan said...

One more thing! (Sorry Mr. S!) This plant possesses "rapid plant movement" -- i.e. it moves. I just verified it myself. Take a needle or a ballpoint pen and poke into the throat of the flower. It moves about a millimeter, in about a quarter of a second. Watch closely. It's not as impressive as Mimosa pudica or Biophytum sensitivum, but do try it if you can get yours to bloom.

Tess said...

I have lost marantas every year, not to heat coming on indoors but to mice. Every winter, one has gotten through my defenses, and it eats the maranta leaves right through the stems. I think this winter mine will make it. They are desperate for a bigger pot this summer, so they will go into my plant condo: a three layer pot where they will be the bottom, dark opal basil in the middle, and peppermint on the top. I hope to keep the herbs cut back enough for meals that they won't bother the marantas.

Lupaikin said...

Hello! I just found your blog today while trying to do some plant identification, and I officially like your work. You amuse me and I hope to actually be able to check your blog often. Plus, you have positively identified my new Maranta leuconeura erythroneura for me. Thank you!

...I wonder if I should get a purple light and see if I can get my Maranta to fly? ;-) I'll let you know if it works.

Anonymous said...

What a great blog! I just bought a prayer plant with the purple/maroon variegation about two weeks ago and it's doing great...even getting some hang time. It's very full. I hope it last the winter based on some of the comments. Photonasty, lol.

Erin said...

Any suggestions for the best repotting medium? Internet searches have varied in their responses. I've had mine for threeish years, and the only issues I've had are browning leaf tips and the plants getting so long and hanging over the edge of the pot that it pretty much suffocates itself at the base of the plant. I've snipped it off to almost nothing to remove the strangled leaves, yet it has come back to do virtually the same thing about once a year. This year, it's had room to spread over my dresser, and I think I need to establish some boundaries with it. My African violets are slowly being forced to the edges of my dresser, and my baby Schlumbergera is almost hidden. I've heard that you can let it climb, but have no idea what setup would be best. Any ideas of what to use to let it grow upwards?

mr_subjunctive said...


Can't really advise on letting it climb; I've never seen it done. (Hadn't even heard of it until your comment.)

On repotting medium, as far as I know they're not picky. An ordinary bagged potting mix for houseplants should be fine. (I personally like Ball, but I'm told that some parts of the U.S. don't get it.) Hell, even Miracle Gro ought to be acceptable to the plant; the real question with Miracle Gro is whether you're okay with some fungus gnats. 'Cause it's always got fungus gnats.