Plants in the Garden: Prayer Plants

The Marantaceae, the Prayer Plant family, is comprised of more than 500 species in 30 genera. Most are native to Tropical America with a few in Africa, Asia and even temperate North America (Thalia). Because no species in this family are epiphytes, I am frequently asked why Selby Gardens maintains a large collection (nearly 200 accessions) of these plants.

First and foremost, the smaller species, which make up the bulk of our collection, are colorful and attractive. In addition, as mostly understory specialists, they demonstrate a number of features thought to be of survival value on the floor of the rainforest. Patterned foliage breaks up their silhouettes, serving as camouflage, and may appear to be damaged or diseased prompting herbivores to seek snacks elsewhere. Many of their leaves have red undersides, a feature thought to redirect scarce sunlight back through the blade for a second shot at photosynthesis. Some species are polymorphic for leaf color and pattern: plants of the same species in different areas, of different ages, under different conditions may look completely different. To sort these out, botanists need living plants to learn which characters are genetic and which are age and environment dependent.

Finally, this collection is one of the best in North America as the result of decades of collecting and research by Dr. Helen Kennedy, a Selby Gardens Research Associate. Many Calathea, Maranta, Stromanthe and Ctenanthe species are permanent residents in the Tropical Display Greenhouse. A few also can be found in protected spots in the open gardens. The majority of the collection is container-grown in one of the research houses and makes occasional public appearances when beautiful and colorful foliage appear.