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A Calathea Groundcover

By Marie Harrison (can2growJuly 2, 2012
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We gardeners always like to share news of plants that grow well in our gardens—particularly those that give us pleasure or are unusual or different. I have just such a plant that grows under the Nuttall oak in my garden. Getting an exact handle on its identification has been hard, but I think I have it figured out now.

Gardening picture
This beautiful groundcover plant has grown in my garden under an oak tree for several years. When I bought it, the name on its tag was Ctenanthe. As sometimes happens, I can’t remember where I bought the plant, but I only bought one—in spite of my admonitions to others to always buy three or some uneven number of plants for the landscape. 
 
Luckily, the little plant flourished, and now it covers an area about a couple of feet square. That, of course, is what we gardeners hope will happen eventually, especially if the plant turns out to be a winner. If we just have patience, one little plant will reward us with more of its kind and we find that purchasing three was not necessary in the first place.
 
The other dayImage I found a few pots of it at a local Garden Center. “There’s my wonderful Ctenanthe,” I thought. Upon close inspection, I noticed that it was labeled Calathea louisae.
 
Research on the internet has not been very revealing. I found it listed under the Calatheas, but I also found that the closely related species of Maranta, Ctenanthe, and Stromanthe are often confused. I’m confused! No matter. We won’t worry about such fine details as long as we can identify the plant, and as long as we know where one can be obtained. As of now, I believe I have it positively identified.
 
Leaves are held aloft on stems longer than the leaf itself. While each leaf and stem measures almost two feet, they do not appear that tall in the landscape. The eight- or nine-inch leaves are held out flat on tall stems so that each one presents its best pose to the viewer. 
 
The top side of the glossy patterned foliage is a combination of dark green and a lighter green with a smattering of silver splotches along the midrib, and it is purple to burgundy underneath. The pointed, roughly oval shaped leaves sport attractive, wavy edges. Growing tightly and closely together, the plants successfully out-compete most other plants that attempt to invade their space. 
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During the summer spiky small white flowers appear. While they are attractive enough, they are fairly inconspicuous and one has to almost peek underneath the leaves to find them. Technically, the flowers arise from bracts, or modified leaves, with a flower or flower cluster in its axil. Most gardeners do not worry about such fine distinctions. If something arises that is showy or different from the leaves, we usually just call it a flower.
 
This particular Calathea resembles some of the peacock gingers (Kaempferia spp.), which are small groundcover plants of the ginger family (Zingiberaceae). I notice with interest that somewhere up there in its family tree (order, for you botanists out there), is listed Zingiberales. Obviously there is a family connection. 
 
I highly recommend this Calathea in Zone 8 and higher as an attractive groundcover for a shady area. Research indicates that it is hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 11, so I suspect that Zone 8 is in the northern range of its hardiness area.  
 
Do not be surprised when the first frost kills Calathea louisae to the ground. Mulch it with a protective cover of pine needles or other light organic materials. It will return next spring and continue to do its pretty thing in a shady nook in your garden.
 
Care of this plant has been minimal. I have watered it during periods of dry weather, and I suppose I must have fertilized it lightly at some time during its life—though I didn’t get to it this spring. A caterpillar or some other critter chews a few holes in the leaves, but I have not attempted to control them, for the damage they do is tolerable and the plants are still attractive.
 
Do not be misled into the notion that all Calatheas are equally hardy. The family includes many tropical plants native to Brazil and tropical America. While not all of them are hardy, most have colorful foliage and are highly desirable houseplants. Pictured below are some beautiful selections that are good choices for gardens in tropical regions and that are equally suited as houseplants in other areas. Mouse over the pictures for identification and picture credits.
 
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Ask for Calathea louisae at your favorite garden center. If they do not have it in stock, many of them will order it for you. A search did not reveal any internet sources for this plant. If any sources are known by readers, please feel free to share the information. It’s a plant worth the trouble.



  About Marie Harrison  
Marie HarrisonServing as a Master Flower Show Judge, a Floral Design Instructor, instructor of horticulture for National Garden Clubs, and a University of Florida Master Gardener immerses me in gardening/teaching activities. In addition to these activities, I contribute regularly to Florida Gardening magazine and other publications. I am author of four gardening books, all published by Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida. Read about them and visit me at www.mariesgardenanddesign.com.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Online source for Calathea louisae Garden_Insanity 1 21 Jul 3, 2012 7:47 AM
Calatheas tropicbreeze 1 13 Jul 3, 2012 7:46 AM
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