The zebra plant (Calathea zebrina, now officially known as Goeppertia zebrina) is used to subtropical conditions, but you can grow it as a houseplant in your home. It needs attention, but not an excessive amount, and you'll end up with lush foliage that adds color to any room.
The zebra plant (Calathea zebrina or Goeppertia zebrina) is a tropical plant native to southeastern Brazil. It's a terrific houseplant, especially if you live in the more humid and warm regions of the U.S., but it does need attention to ensure it thrives. It's a beautiful tropical perennial plant that can fill an empty space in your home with brightly colored leaves in a short time.
What Is Calathea Zebrina?
The zebra plant gets its name from the alternating dark-and-light green stripes on the top sides of its leaves. It is officially in the Goeppertia genus; several Calathea species were reassigned a few years ago, including the zebra plant. When looking for this plant for your home, it will help to search under Calathea and Goeppertia if you need to use a scientific name. Of course, you should be able to find it using the common name zebra plant.
Characteristics and General Information
A word often associated with Calathea zebrina plants is "fussy," and that's a good descriptor; the plant isn't difficult to take care of, but it has particular growing requirements. If you can provide those, caring for the plant and keeping it healthy will be relatively simple.
The plant is good for areas with little direct sun and can have some run-of-the-mill pest problems if you don't care for it properly. The large leaves on the plant can gather dust as with other plants, so the occasional swipe with a dusting cloth will help keep the plant looking nice and glossy.
Is Calathea zebrina toxic? Not to humans and animals, although it's always best to prevent pets and kids from chewing on the plant, at least for the sake of the plant's health.
The Appearance of Calathea Zebrina
With a name like a zebra plant, you can already guess that the plant has stripes. Each leaf has alternating dark and light green stripes, with the dark green stripes often fading before they reach the leaf margins. Those same stripes often have a fork at the end.
The leaves can reach 18 inches and are oval with a slight point at the end. The leaves grow on single, upright stalks of varying heights. The whole plant generally reaches about 3 feet tall, with the spread of the leaves making it about 3 feet wide. The leaves tend to fall back from the stems instead of pointing up.
However, consider yourself very lucky if the leaves do decide to be "up" a little; the undersides of the leaves are a near purplish-red color – with stripes, of course – and the entire leaf can have a velvety feel.
The zebra plant is often placed in the "prayer plant" group and other plants in the genus Maranta, which is in the same family. These plants have leaves that appear to fold together overnight like sets of praying hands. The leaves unfold again in the morning.
Zebra plants grown inside the home rarely flower; that's more common on plants grown outside. It won't be that spectacular if you get the plant to flower, although you will see masses of small white or purple flowers. The petals do drop spectacularly, so check daily for cleanup needs if you get a few flowers indoors.
How to Care for Calathea Zebrina
Whether you consider the plant fussy or think it's just very secure in knowing what it wants, you have to give it its preferred growing conditions if you want it to look good.
The more humid your general environment, the better. For example, the zebra plant would be difficult to grow in arid regions with low humidity. It does best in USDA zones 11-12, meaning places like southern Florida, far southern Texas, southwestern California, and points around the south of California/Arizona border (as long as you can provide the humidity requirements outside of monsoon season), and possibly interior parts of Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
Of course, if you're growing it as an indoor houseplant, you can do that in colder zones as long as you can provide the environmental moisture levels that it prefers. This means doing things like misting the leaves or using a tray full of pebbles and water to create a humid microclimate around that one plant.
Calathea Zebrina Soil Requirements
The zebra plant needs that common combination of well-draining but moist soil. A mix of peat and perlite works well, with the potting soil used for African violets often recommended. If you're new to houseplant care, using a ready-made mix is a good idea.
Keep the soil moist. This will also help increase the humidity around the plant as the evaporation of moisture from the soil will increase the humidity in the air around the plant.
Preferred Light Conditions
For Calathea zebrina, the light should be indirect yet bright, and morning light is better than afternoon light. Direct sunlight will burn and fade the leaves; when placing the plant, observe the area to ensure you haven't missed anything and that there are no times when the afternoon sun suddenly shines directly on that spot.
For example, the plant does well in an area shielded by a light curtain (so the plant gets bright but indirect light), but if you open that curtain, you want to be sure the plant will not be exposed to direct sunlight. An area by a north-facing window is often best.
Despite its origins in subtropical regions and its preference for similar humidity, the plant likes more moderate temperatures. 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit is perfect; below 60 degrees will be highly uncomfortable for the plant. Avoid sudden temperature drops.
Don't try to warm up the plant by placing it near a heater as the drier air in that spot, not to mention the constant drying breeze from the heater vent, will dry out the plant. Zebra plants can be hardy little things, but you don't want to put them in difficult environmental situations if you can avoid them.
Providing the right amount of water takes some doing because the requirements vary by season. In general, you want to keep the soil moist but not waterlogged; let the top of the soil dry out between waterings. This can be about once a week, more often in the spring and summer growing season and less often in winter.
Try not to use water that's too hard or soft. Distilled water (available bottled in grocery stores) is a good choice. Water the plant at the base of the stem, and avoid pouring water on the plant from the top to reduce the chances of fungal pathogens taking over the leaves.
Humidity levels of about 60 percent are best. If your home does not normally have that level, you'll need to create a mini humidity bubble for the plant. As previously mentioned, misting the leaves can work to an extent, although this is not a one-and-done solution.
The excellent idea is to create a humidity tray with pebbles sitting in water. Get a tray that's wider than the base of the plant and fill it with pebbles. Fill that with water, and set the plant pot on top. The water will slowly evaporate, and the resulting vapor will create a humid environment for the plant. You'll have to check the tray every few days, and more often if you're in a dry area or going through a dry spell, and refill the water when needed.
You can also try placing a humidifier near the plant, but keep in mind that this will also increase humidity in your home a lot more than a humidity tray would. That can be an advantage if, say, you're in Southern California and dealing with 3 percent humidity from Santa Ana winds. It's not so good if your home has moderate levels of humidity already and you don't like the feeling of more humidity. In that case, a humidity tray for the plant is better than using a room humidifier.
Fertilizing and feeding zebra plants is one of the more simple aspects of Calathea zebrina care. Get a general liquid fertilizer (10-10-10) and feed the plant every other week during spring and summer. There's no need to fertilize zebra plants in winter.
A healthy Calathea zebrina plant only requires occasional pruning. When leaves die, they'll turn brown and/or curl up, so trim those off at the base of the stalk using clean, sterile scissors or pruners—wiping the blades with rubbing alcohol before pruning is advised. If the leaves appear to be turning a bit brown at the edges or the leaf tips, try misting them and ensuring that you're providing enough water and food.
If you start noticing mass die-offs of leaves, you need to look at whether the plant is suffering from pests or disease.
Leaves that were pruned off because they were getting old and turning brown can be composted instead of tossed in the garbage. A kitchen compost unit like Lomi can be a great help here. Do not compost leaves pruned due to disease or pest problems.
Calathea zebrina grows rather quickly, so once you get it established in its potting soil, it should increase in size up to about 2 to 3 feet tall soon after. It won't grow taller than that; however, at that point, keeping the plant alive and looking good is your goal.
The plant tends not to spread out, root-wise. However, if it does become root-bound, that can impede its ability to produce healthy leaves. At that point, you'll need to transplant it to a larger pot. Spring is the best time to re-pot the zebra plant. Change the soil, too; giving it fresh soil will help refresh the plant. This is also a good time to propagate Calathea zebrina if you wish.
If you want to divide the plant – maybe the root mass is growing really big, or your friend would like to try growing a zebra plant – take it out of its pot and look for natural dividing points on the root mass. You can break the mass apart here (gently!), often just with your hands; if you have to, you can use scissors or a knife, but again, any tools must be clean and sterile first.
Replant the divisions in pots with good potting mix soil and adequate drainage holes, and give the young plants careful care with moderate light for a couple of weeks. Then you can go back to caring for each the same way you cared for the original plant.
How to Water Calathea Zebrina
Previously, you were told to water the plant at the base and mist the leaves. There is a difference between these. The misting, for humidity, should be very light; your goal is to give the leaves and plant shape a more humid, misty environment. Use a spray bottle, and do not soak the leaves. The plant should look like it's been outside on a foggy but non-drizzly morning.
Watering is different. This is when you want to get to the base of the plant at the soil line and avoid dropping water onto the leaves, where it could sit and give fungi a place to grow.
The zebra plant is pretty good in terms of diseases for all its pickiness. It has some issues, but nothing out of the ordinary if you've been taking good care of it. Root rot is probably the most common issue due to overwatering and soggy soil.
Aphids, scale insects, mealy bugs, and spider mites are the leading pest issues for these plants. For scale, get horticultural oil and apply per package directions; for the others, insecticidal soap is good, along with neem oil. Again, use all these according to package directions.
Don't let the plant's leaves become dusty. Wipe them down with a damp (not wet) cloth on both sides regularly; this helps remove debris that could hide forming pest issues.
Common Calathea Zebrina Problems
The sooner you recognize why your plant looks the way it does, the sooner you can remedy the situation.
Calathea Zebrina Leaves Are Drooping
Dry air and cold air can cause leaves to droop on Calathea plants. If the temperature is fine, measure the humidity levels and increase as needed to provide a warm and humid environment. Look for warm and cold drafts as both of these can dry out Calathea zebrina plants and lead to drooping.
Calathea Zebrina Is Dying
If the plant is just withering away, light is the main issue. If the plant is in a very bright spot, move it back a bit so that it still gets light, just not as much. If the spot isn't very bright, do the opposite and move it closer to a sunny spot to get enough light – but remember to keep the plant out of direct sunlight and ensure it sits in average room temperatures.
Calathea Zebrina Leaves Are Turning Yellow
Yellow leaves indicate a lack of water. You may be waiting too long between waterings, or the soil mix may be too well-draining. Adjust watering levels, water regularly, and re-pot in the peat-based potting mix if necessary.
Calathea Zebrina Leaves Are Twisting and Curling
Curling leaves, assuming you're not looking at just one old leaf that's on its way out naturally, are a sign that you're not giving the plant enough water or humidity. Water quality could be an issue as well. Ensure you're watering until the soil is moist, watering when the soil surface runs dry and using distilled water.
Calathea Zebrina Stems Are Getting Weaker
Weak, limp stems indicate the plant is getting too much water. (We warned you that watering was tricky.) Let wet soil dry out a bit more, and check for root rot (you'll see browning on the stems near the base if root rot is an issue). Re-pot with better-draining soil if needed.
The Zebra Plant's Leaves Look Faded and Discolored
Another light problem. The plant could be getting direct sun when you don't realize it. Sometimes too little light can also discolor the leaves, so move the plant and observe the area it was growing in at different times of the day to see what's up.
There Is Gray Mold on the Calathea Zebrina Plant
Gray mold is a sign of either way too much humidity ("tropical plant" does not equal "let the plant swim in the air"), or you got water on the plant leaves during watering. Prune off the infected, moldy leaves and throw them away. Sterilize the pruners or scissors you use before pruning, and between each leaf, you prune off.
Don't let those problems or the idea of the zebra plant being very choosy about its growing conditions stop you from trying to grow one or more of these. Once you get used to providing the proper care, it's actually a simple plant to keep around. Let those gorgeous leaves brighten up your home!