I thought I’d lied to you recently! I called one of my latest plant additions a calathea, thinking it wasn’t a prayer plant because it wasn’t doing very much praying (as I wrote about here, prayer plants get their common name from the way they fold up almost into the shape of praying hands at night). Turns out, though, it sort of does pray up at night and so I’d started thinking it actually was a maranta.
It is not! The ‘peacock plant’ is actually a calathea, as I first wrote. Calathea makoyana, to be specific. And this has got me thinking – just how closely related are calathea and maranta?
Marantas are true prayer plants because they perform nyctinasty, a response to nighttime where the leaves fold up. This is the major difference between the two plants, as Calathea does not have that reaction. The nyctinasty is just one main trait that is different. Leaf shape is another.Gardening Know How [linked in Resources section]
You’ll read here:
🌱What do ‘calathea‘ and ‘maranta‘ mean?
🌱What do ‘lemon lime‘ and ‘peacock‘ mean?
🌱Who decides? Lumpers & Splitters
🌱Characteristics & Care
What do ‘calathea‘ and ‘maranta‘ Mean?
‘Calathea‘ and ‘maranta‘ are genus names. If it’s been a while since you took a biology class, or if you’re like me and have a degree in biology but still struggle to remember the taxonomic order, here’s a refresher:
So: the “calathea” (or “goeppertia”; this is an example of modern taxonomical drama*) in calathea makoyana and the “maranta” in maranta leuconeura tell you the genus.
As a precursor to the following discussion of relatedness between my maranta and calathea plants: the genuses calathea and maranta are in the same family. It’s also important to remember that an organism’s scientific name consistes of first the genus name and then the species name.
What do “Lemon Lime” and “Peacock” Mean?
The first thing you need to know here is something I’ve just learned myself: there is actually a difference between varieties and cultivars.
All cultivars are varieties, but not all varieties are cultivars. A cultivar is a cultivated variety. Cultivars are basically human-created varieties.
When a variety is named in writing (for example, in a book, on the Web, or a plant label), it should appear differently than a cultivar name. Rather than being presented in single quotes (with the first letter capitalized), it should be italicized and in lower case—just like the species name, which it follows.The Spruce, What to Know About the Difference Between Cultivars and Varieties (linked in Resources)
With this research came another twist of fate! My prayer plant, sold to me as the cultivar lemon-lime, actually appears to be the variety rabbit’s foot! I love it just the same but I’m curious; keep your eyes peeled for another post on just that specific topic!
And so, are “lemon lime” and “peacock” variety names or cultivar names? And what about “rabbit’s foot,” for the fun of it?
“Lemon lime” is a cultivar name, and thus a lemon-lime prayer plant should be taxonomically written as such: Maranta leuconeura “Lemon-lime”
“Rabbit’s foot” is a common name for the variety name “Kerchoviana” and thus would be written in this way: Maranta leuconeura var. kerchoviana
And finally, to throw more scientific classification confusion at you, “Peacock plant” is actually just a common name for the species C. makoyana; it’s not a taxonomic term at all.
If you’ve never checked out NCBI’s website, I recommend you do it. The taxonomy browser is one of my favorite things.
There’s a lot that goes into taxonomic relatedness and I don’t want to go into all that here. So to summarize: the more taxonomic layers two organisms share, the more closely related they are/the more recent common ancestor they share; these two beautiful plants of mine are pretty closely related, organized together down to the level of family.
Also keep in mind that once two organisms split off at a level, they can’t come back together. For example two organisms can’t be in different genuses but the same species.
Who Decides? Lumpers & Splitters
Let’s play a game. Here are a bunch of things sharing a space; organize them into groups.
There are so many ways you could organize these things. You could go by shape, by color, by relative size, by what letters are inside, by orientation in space, by number of corners, by angle size or number of angles, by which ones you like and which ones you don’t, or even by more than one of these categories. For example:
sorted by color
sorted letters vs. no letters
sorted by letters vs. no letters then again by color
sorted by shape
And now let’s pretend we have two folks individually organizing these things. This is how each of them does it:
If you take a close look you might notice that person number 1 painstakingly separated out the things down to the finest of differences. The three rainbow shapes are each by themselves because they’re each a different color. On the other hand, person number 2 seemed to focus more on the connections than the differences; their things are separated such that the individuals in each grouping are very different but do share at least a trait or two.
Taxonomists can organize differently too! Historically those who take person 1’s approach are known as splitters, and those who take person 2’s approach are lumpers.
Now, C. makoyana and M. leuconeura are in different genuses so there’s a good chance their separation didn’t come down to a lumper vs. splitter choice; I believe that’d be more likely to occur at the species breakdown. But this is still interesting because (a) these plants really do have quite the similarities and it’s really an ode to observatory science that we’re able to recognize their individualities; and (b) relatively recently the Calathea genus had ~200 members removed and put in the genus Goeppertia instead (read: taxonomic drama*) proving the transitory, ambiguous, absurd nature of taxonomical organization once again.
In fact, when researching C. makoyana I’ve found it named both ways: Calathea makoyana (C. makoyana) AND Goeppertia makoyana (G. makoyana)!
Now you may ask: but what about the most recent common ancestor? If we know where two organisms started to differ, don’t we know objectively if they’re the same species or not? That shit is complex, and the topic of its own future blog post.
Characteristics & Care
Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty, down in the dirt, into the thick of it – what’re these plants like and how do I take care of them?
Let’s start by summarizing which plant is which from what we’ve learned above. Maranta leuconeura var. kerchoviana is the smaller green dude that I’ve had for a while. My newer plant, the big purple-and-green dude, is a peacock plant a.k.a. C. or G. makoyana.
As for their behavior, they actually act pretty similarly! Although peacock plants don’t fold up into prayer hands at night technically, mine certaintly does shift into a different more-folded position as darkness approaches. Meanwhile because it’s recovering from a health scare, my prayer plant actually hasn’t been folding up as noticeably at night as it used to. But, you’ll notice that little M. leuconeura has a big new leaf and some color back, so health is improving!
Since I’ve had the leuconeura longer I’ve learned more about it’s care and I have a more defined regimen for it. However, the care I give my other calathea plant (not the peacock plant) is very similar to that of the prayer plant, so I assume the care regimens will converge soon. For now, here’s how they live:
These plants live together next to one high-powered humidifier and two simple humidifiers, sharing water with one another and their baby button fern buddy. I keep that humidifier set to 60% humidity; when that drops to 5% too high or too low the humidifier adapts accordingly. This has been great as the weather gets warmer and I have the forced-hot-air heat on less, as the humidifier doesn’t have to work as hard or use as much water. Their little setup is located across the room from a south-facing window and a west-facing window. It seems to be warm, wet, and bright enough for these two where they are right now.
- Smart Garden Guide
- Gardening Know How: Are Calathea and Maranta the Same?
- Candide: ‘Lemon Lime’
- GardenTags ‘Lemon Lime’
- NCBI Common Tree Taxonomy Browser
- UHawai’i Manoa (This is a fantastically written, in-depth article on biological classification. It includes activity resources and gives amazing examples; I’d definitely recommend this if you’re interested in further reading on how taxonomy works!)
- Completely Arbortrary [podcast where I first heard the phrases “lumpers” and “splitters”; sorry I couldn’t remember the episode! So here’s their entire site.]
- American Ornithological Society’s writing on Lumpers and Splitters
- Wikipedia: Lumpers and Splitters
- Some taxonomic drama: Calathea and Goeppertia*
- The Spruce: Cultivars vs. Varieties
- more on this topic, specifically for prayer plants, from Gardeners’ Path
Thank you for going on this taxonomic trip with me! See ya next time.