Meet the houseplant: Calathea orbifolia

  • Calathea orbifolia leaves
  • Calathea orbifolia
  • Row of Calathea orbifolia
  • Calathea and other plants

It’s official. I’ve declared Calathea orbifolia my houseplant of the year for 2021.

I mean, just look at it… What’s not to love? Those huge round leaves (orb-like, hence the name), striped through with white, that unfurl in a hugely pleasing way from tightly packed tubes. It’s got serious glamorous appeal, but – provided you get its water right – is pretty easy to look after. It doesn’t need a huge amount of light, doesn’t need too much fuss or ongoing maintenance and actually can go a little while between waterings without complaining too much.

The one thing it is a bit of a diva about? Tap water. It’s really not a fan of tap water, and has a huge tendency to get crispy brown edges to those glorious leaves if you only use water fresh from the tap. But let’s get properly stuck in…

Watering:

Caltheas in general like consistency with watering, not enjoying getting too dry or being completely drenched. I find that orbifolia is more forgiving than other types if you forget to water it for a while and you can actually let the compost dry out quite a bit before it complains. But don’t aim to do this! Ideally water once the top few inches have dried out, pouring water through the pot until it comes out of the drainage holes at the bottom. Leave the pot sitting in the water for about 20 minutes and then pour off any excess that hasn’t been taken up in the soil. In the growing months, it will need watering about once a week. In the Autumn and Winter, less frequently, though do keep a check on it as central heating can dry pots out quite quickly.

But, as I mentioned earlier, the one thing to really pay attention to is what type of water to use. Water fresh out of a tap has lots of calcium and lots of chemicals in, and calatheas really don’t like this. It makes the edge of their leaves turn brown and crispy after a while. The best thing to water with is rain water. If you have a rain water butt, this should be easy enough. If not, you can always leave a watering can outside when it’s raining, but I personally find this is a bit of a faff to remember. (Being completely honest, I have a rain water butt and still find it a bit of a faff to use rain water!) If this is the same for you, then the next best thing is using water that has been boiled in a kettle and then cooled. This helps to remove a lot of the extra calcium and some of the chemicals from the water. And if this is still a faff, then leave a jug of tap water for about 24 hours before using it, as this lets some of the chemicals simply evaporate away (and ensures it’s not too cold, which can also give the plant a bit of a shock…)

Yes, all of that is a bit of a pain, but I do think this plant is such a stunner, it’s worth a bit of extra effort!

Light:

Calathea orbifolia prefers medium indirect light. Don’t put them somewhere where rays of direct sun would hit them, especially not harsh midday sun. They would grow well directly in a North facing window, or a metre or so away from an East facing window. In rooms with South or West facing windows, choose a spot where the rays of sun coming into the room won’t directly hit their leaves, as this can cause the leaf markings to fade. My largest Calathea sits on the hearth of the fireplace about three metres from a West facing window, always a little under the angle where the light comes into the room, and grows incredibly happily there.

Humidity:

These do prefer slightly higher humidity than we naturally have in our homes, especially in Winter time. An occasional mist helps to increase humidity temporarily, or for a more constant solution, you could place them on a gravel tray, or use my sock-in-a-pot trick.

Feeding: a general houseplant feed, once every fortnight in the growing season (roughly April – September) will help keep it happy. Always follow the instructions on the label of the fertiliser and don’t be tempted to add too much, as this could scorch the roots or even kill the plant.

Pruning:

This shouldn’t need much pruning, as it is basically just a group of leaves growing straight out of the soil. If any get damaged in any way, or start to get brown edges, you can just cut them off at the base. If lots of the leaves have brown edges, don’t cut them all off at once, but adjust your watering schedule, and once there are plenty of fresh leaves, you can trim away the old damaged ones.

Repotting:

Calaheas don’t love being repotted, so only move it on when its roots are filling the pot it is in. They wouldn’t normally need a repot more frequently than every two years. If the roots are completely filling the pot, or you can see them appearing out of the holes in the bottom, then it’s a sign it needs to be moved on. Choose a pot only a little larger than the one it is in, about 5cm bigger should be fine. Fill the bottom of the new pot with the potting mix: a general, well draining houseplant compost should work well. Place the original pot inside, to check the height. Make sure that it will sit at the same height within the new pot that it did in the old pot. Carefully remove the roots from the old pot – squeezing the sides gently first can help to release it if it is stuck. You can gently shake off a bit of the old compost from around the sides, but take care not to damage the roots. The old compost will have used up its store of nutrients, so replacing it with fresh compost will help keep your calathea healthy. Hold the plant in position, and carefully fill around the edges with new compost. Press down to make sure any large air pockets are filled, but don’t compress the compost too much. Water thoroughly to help the compost settle, and refill any holes that might appear.

You won’t need to fertilise the plant for a while, as the fresh compost will have plenty of nutrients in it. Check the bag for more details.

Other tips:

Leaves can get damaged if they’re knocked or folded and can show brown lines and tears. If this happens to one or two leaves, just trim them off at the base.

Want one of your own? I have some of the stunning Calathea orbifolia for sale as one of the plants in my statement plants box.

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