Arno KingCtenanthe – the never never plants

Do you have some Never Never Plants in your garden? If you live in a warm climate, you just may have, and you wouldn’t even know it. These are tough plants that are often relegated to the back corners of shaded gardens or office interiors. They don’t often feature in garden books or articles so there widespread existence is testimony to their hardiness. If you have some shady spots and are looking for some lush low maintenance hardy plants, these could be the plants for you.

Ctenanthe setosa 'Grey Star' adds lightness to dark areas

Ctenanthe setosa ‘Grey Star’ adds lightness to dark areas

These plants belong to the genus Ctenanthe. They are shade loving herbaceous plants related to Calathea, Maranta and Stromanthe – all popular foliage plants for the shade. They belong to the family Marantaceae, often known as prayer plants, as many species fold their leaves up as if in prayer each night. As a group however, plants in this genus seem to be more vigorous than those in related genera, tolerating periods of dryness and low humidity. The leaves are thick and some of plants grow quite tall. These attributes have made them very popular as houseplants, but they are also sturdy understorey plants in the tropics and subtropics. Most species are native to south-east Brazil.

Ctenanthe burle-marxii makes a great low groundcover in the shade

Ctenanthe burle-marxii makes a great low groundcover in the shade

I grow many Ctenanthes in my garden. Their hardiness and low maintenance certainly makes them popular with me. I rely on natural rainfall and have limited rainwater for the garden. These plants have performed well despite some erratic rainfall in recent years. Should they dry out for a period of time, the plants have a unique way of conserving water – the leaves simply roll in on themselves, reducing transpiration. I have them growing under gum trees (Eucalyptus species), which as any gardener will know, can be a real trial under which to establish a garden.

There are some 15 species in the genus and many of these are popular in cultivation and are readily available from nurseries – however don’t expect them to be labelled correctly, if at all. I would recommend them all to keen gardeners. I grow seven of these species and many of the popular cultivars.

Ctenanthe amabilis has beautifully striped leaves

Ctenanthe amabilis has beautifully striped leaves

Ctenanthe amabilis is low and mounding

Ctenanthe amabilis is low and mounding

Ctenanthe amabilis
With typical elongated leaves in grey and soft greyish green, this plant tends to spread sideways rather than growing upright and therefore tends to be lower than many other species. Branches will root at the notes and plants also suckers from the base, thus can spread over time, particularly in moist areas. Exotic looking it is. It is more commonly found in tropical areas but is equally at home in the subtropics. It seems to like slightly more moisture than many other species in the genus.

Ctenanthe burle-marxii has dramatically striped leaves

Ctenanthe burle-marxii has dramatically striped leaves

Ctenanthe burle-marxii
This is one of my all-time favourite foliage plants. It is a stunning low growing species with dramatically coloured leaves. This is probably the smallest plant in the genus. Discovered by Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle-Marx, the plant has been known in cultivation for almost half a century, but was only formally described in the mid 1990s. The typical species has quite thick rectangular silver-grey leaves with a deep green herring bone overlay. It is a great groundcover plant for the shade and always looks immaculate – hence it is an ideal plant for a low maintenance garden. It also grows quite flat to the ground.

Ctenanthe burlemarxii var obscura is a hardy groundcover for the shade

Ctenanthe burle-marxii var obscura is a hardy groundcover for the shade

Ctenanthe burle-marxii var. obscura is similar to the above, but has mid green leaves with deep green markings – thus it is a more subtle version of the above. It is identical in habit and needs.

Ctenanthe burle-marxii 'Amagris' is low and grey

Ctenanthe burle-marxii ‘Amagris’ is low and grey

Ctenanthe burle-marxii 'Amagris' makes a great low maintenance groundcover

Ctenanthe burle-marxii ‘Amagris’ makes a great low maintenance groundcover

Ctenanthe burle-marxii ‘Amagris’ is a chance mutation which occurred in a Belgium tissue culture laboratory and is now covered by a plant patent. The grey leaves have very narrow light green veining resulting in the silver grey colour dominating. There is a further dwarf mutation of this plant which appears to be as yet unnamed.

Ctenanthe compressa
The ‘Bamburanta Plant’ is well known to many gardeners and seems to have been commonly available since at least the 1960s. In contrast to the other species discussed, it has large mid-green leaves. This is a very tough plant. A ‘hanger on’. It will survive long after the gardener has left and will tolerate quite dry, shady spots. While not eye catching it provides a dependable lush green backdrop. Sadly the plant is not readily available commercially any more, which is a great pity. Hunt for some ‘slips’ in the gardens of fellow gardeners.

Ctenanthe lubbersiana provides brilliant flashes of yellow in the shade

Ctenanthe lubbersiana provides brilliant flashes of yellow in the shade

Ctenanthe lubersiana Cairns Botanic Garden

Ctenanthe lubbersiana Cairns Botanic Garden

Ctenanthe lubbersiana
This plant has continued to be commercially available in its variegated forms for almost half a century. I like the plain green form as a lush green backdrop in shaded areas. Although not available commercially, it occasionally occurs as a reversion from the variegated plants that are widely grown. Shiny green rectangular leaves grow from a branching stem some 1.2 to 1.5m high. Established plants have a ‘layered’ effect.
Two variegated cultivars are commonly available.
Ctenanthe lubbersiana ‘Golden mosaic’ has slashes and blocks of creamy yellow splashed over the leaves and provides highlights in shaded spots.
Ctenanthe lubbersiana ’Variegata’ has a finer tracery of golden venation through the leaves. It is subtle and sophisticated.

Ctenanthe oppenheimiana is a blast from the past

Ctenanthe oppenheimiana is a blast from the past

Ctenanthe oppenheimiana
A ‘cult’ interior plant during the 60’s and 70s, this plant is a little trickier to track down these days. Like related species, the leaves of this plant are striped with grey and grey green.
Probably more widely known is the popular cultivar: Ctenanthe oppenheimiana ‘Tricolor’ which has irregular splashes of white and pink on its variegated leaves. It provides colour to a shaded corner.

Ctenanthe oppenheimiana 'Tricolor' provides striking colour in the shade

Ctenanthe oppenheimiana ‘Tricolor’ provides striking colour in the shade

Ctenanthe setosa has striking purple undersides to the leaf

Ctenanthe setosa has striking purple undersides to the leaf

Ctenanthe setosa
This is another toughie that you will see in many older, warm climate gardens. Growing to 1 metre high the leaves are grey and green striped, with a striking purplish underside. The species name setosa relates to the ‘bristly or hairy’ leaf stems (petioles) and the new growth. This feature is an easy way to identify the plant.

This is one of the more vigorous Ctenanthes. After a good wet season, the plant can double in size so provide it with some space to really make an impact.

Ctenanthe setosa 'Grey Star' with platinum grey leaves

Ctenanthe setosa ‘Grey Star’ with platinum grey leaves

Ctenanthe setosa ‘Grey Star’ is more commonly available from nurseries and has a solid grey leaf. It can be a striking addition to a shady garden providing contrast with green leaves.

Ctenanthe setosa is a survivor

Ctenanthe setosa is a survivor

I also grow another unidentified species. It is a giant, with a greyish-green metallic top surface and purplish undersides. Another toughie, it can be found in older gardens in northern New South Wales. I really love this plant and it would be great to give it a name. It has obviously been in the country for many years. The flower structure and growth clearly identify it as being in this genus.

You will see Ctenanthes used widely in many Botanic Gardens and also in private gardens which open regularly to the public. Rod Paterson at Rochedale, Brisbane, Dennis Hundscheidt at Sunnybank, Brisbane and Cheryl Boyd at Stringybark Cottage on the Sunshine Coast all have plantings of many of these species used to good effect in their gardens.

Ctenanthes deserve to be more widely grown and appreciated. While they may be ‘Never Never’ plants and true survivors, provided with organically enriched well mulched soils, additional fertiliser and an occasional watering during dry periods, they are attractive, lush and vigorous. They may not be ‘in your face’ but they are dependable – and we need more of these plants in our gardens.

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Arno King

About Arno King

Landscape architect, horticulturist, journalist and keen gardener, Arno is a regular contributor to Subtropical Gardening Magazine. Based in Brisbane, Arno grows a wide diversity of unusual plant species and has particular interests in growing edible plants in creative settings and biological and organic gardening. Brisbane, Queensland

41 thoughts on “Ctenanthe – the never never plants

  1. Once again Arno you’ve given us so much valuable info about a great plant family for warmer climes – thanks! I love that they grow so well in the shade and look good en mass.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Kim

      Yes, we are always on the lookout for tough plants for the shade to use in our gardens. When mass planted Ctenanthes look magnificent. I recently visited Bronte House, where they are used superbly.

      Arno

  2. maine9 on said:

    Thank you for your very informative article, I had no idea there was such a variety of this under utilised group of plants.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Maine

      Thanks for the feedback.

      I’ve only given you ‘a taster of’ some of the plants I grow! Just 6 of the Ctenanthe species. There are many more and I’m sure they will also prove to be great garden and interior plants

      Arno

  3. Julie Whitfield on said:

    I agree about their toughness – the only issue I have with C. lubbersiana is that it has a running rhizome, and comes up where i dont want it! my garden is warm coastal Sydney, and it has made itself quite at home!

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Julie

      The Ctenanthe obviously likes your garden. I guess Ctenanthes are like any other plant, if they like the spot, they will grow well!

      I find Ctenanthes are easy to keep in place. They tend to have very shallow roots and it is easy to dig up unwanted extensions of growth. Also the rhizome is soft and easy to slice through.

      If the plant is becoming a maintenace problem, I would bury a root guard around the plant to keep it contained. I do this with Heliconia psittacorum cvs which tend to’wander’.

      Arno

  4. Thanks for the post Arno. I too like the ctenanthe setosa and its survival properties have been sorely tested here, as I have probably dug up and out more than I have kept. It is invasive, but you’re right. The colour and variegation add interest and contrast – and shady spots always need dependable, resilient little critters
    The grey star and lubbersiana are attractive and have me tempted to add to my ctenanthe family. .
    I think a mass planting can look fantastic as you so rightly point out and the gardens at Sunshine Coast look great with these …

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Julie

      great to hear you are also growing Ctenanthe setosa. You get more regular rainfall than I do, so obviously your plants are growing well.

      Perhaps you should try planting some of your ‘excess’ in some of those difficult shaded spots in your garden where nothing else will grow well. This will slow the plant down!

      Yes mass planted Ctenanthes look sensational. After looking at Ctenanthes growing in gardens, I tend to think the larger ones look best in drifts of at least 3 metres (9 feet) wide and at least 1.5 metres (4 1/2 feet) deep. Obviously this is not possible in smaller gardens – but then again in bigger acreage or country gardens the scale needs to be larger.

      I have my larger Ctenanthes towards the back of my shaded garden beds where they can roam around the trees and form an attractive backdrop to the smaller plants near the pathways.

      I regard them as very low maintenance plants in the garden. I rarely touch them – but then I am also keen for the clumps to increase in size!

      Arno

  5. Paul on said:

    I love these plants… foliage to die for!
    They add interest with their patterned leaves without being brash with garish flowers. It is interesting to read other comments indicating how tough they are and clearly shows how tropical plants grow well in protected locations in cooler climates.
    Great to see so many species and cultivars displayed with images.
    Good article Arno.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Paul

      I’m glad you are also a fan of these plants.

      I note that the readers who have noted them as being a hardy group. generally garden in south-east Queensland which has a similar climate to that where these plants originate. Native to south-eastern Brazil, they grow in somewhat cooler climates than many Calatheas and also climates that can have a seasonally dry winter and spring as well as drier or wetter years. I guess this is why it is so valuable to know your garden plants and where they originate.

      Arno

  6. A great tribe to cover Arno and a useful group for dry shade especially where few others are so generous and undemanding, growing as they appear to on the surface even over root ridden top soils competing with fierce feeder roots of large trees. Long rein Marantaceae !!! Asking Mrs Google what she thought, stumbled across this http://botany.si.edu/zingiberales/ exceptionally easy to grasp diagrammatic understanding of all the Zingiberales, where each related family appears circled so you can see where they appear on the Order.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Peter

      thanks for the link. Yes I agree, long rein Marantaceae. So many species which are great garden and landscape plants.

      Arno

  7. Jacqueline on said:

    Googling for Ctenanthe ‘Grey Star’ directed me here. Thank you so much for an interesting and informative article on Ctenanthe, Arno! And, I’m mighty delighted because you’ve helped me ID’ed my recently acquired plant as Ctenanthe burle-marxii ‘Amagris’.
    You have such a wonderful collection. I love variegated foliage plants too and hope to include more in my garden.

    • Arno King on said:

      Thanks for the your comments Jaqueline. Good luck with incorporating more of these plants in your garden.

  8. Pingback: Our garden joy from July to August 2013 – Part 2 | John&Jacq~s Garden

  9. Olga on said:

    Hi Arno,
    Ctenanthe Setosa and Calathea compacta star are the same. Hugs

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Olga

      I have not come across the name Calathea Compact Star before, however I did a search on the net to check it out.

      I can only find a couple of sites using this name. They seem to show both Ctenanthe setosa and Ctenanthe oppenheimiana in their images.

      Unfortunately many nurseries are bit lax in their plant ID and this can be confusing to the public. These days most gardeners check out their plants on the internet so I believe misidentification reflects badly on the industry.

      Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

      Arno

      • Olga Dahan on said:

        Thank you for your answer dear Arno King. Hugs from Tartagal Salta, Argentina.
        Olga

  10. Jenny Buchanan on said:

    Thank you for this post. I have just planted a new garden in Northern New South Wales and was looking for info about one plant in particular that curls its leaves up at night. I am pretty sure it is the unnamed Ctenanthe that you describe in this post. I thought that the plant was stressed because of the leaf-curling but couldn’t work out if it was the cold or the lack of rain, even though I water it regularly. If it is as tough as you suggest, though, I think I will just leave it alone.

    Jen

    • My daughter has one of these plants in her bathroom and loves the way it “puts itself to bed” each night, and then wakes up and stretches out the following morning.

  11. James on said:

    Arno, this is great – we have an indoor Ctenanthe in a temperate climate in South Australia and I’ve never been able to find out much information about it. We’d love to propagate it and grow it outdoors – any tips for propagation of this plant?

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello James

      Glad to hear you are growing Ctenanthe in South Australia.

      Regarding propagation of the plant, it is by division. Left to themselves, the plant produces crowns of leaves at the end of succulent stolons. It is a simple process of unpotting your plant and then separating these crowns by cutting the stolons that connects them, and carefully pulling the roots apart.

      Regarding growing the plant in South Australia, this will depend on your local climate. I have seen Ctenanthe growing in protected locations around Adelaide – but I would regard it as being marginal. If you have frosts during winter, you may need to grow plants in pots and place them outside during summer and bring them in under cover during winter. Also Ctenanthes like an acid soil and many South Australian soils are quite alkaline.

      Ctenanthes like humid, shady conditions and moist soils so you will need to grow them in a protected location and water well over the summer months. I would expect Ctenanthe compressa and C. lubbersiana would be the hardiest species to grow.

      Good luck with your plants.

      Arno

      • Sue King on said:

        Arno, thank you for this information. I have been trying to identify my plant so I can give as gifts to family friends.

        James,
        I have been growing one in a pot outside here in South Australia for about 7 years now. I don’t give it any special attention at all, although it likes plenty of water in summer ( this could be due to it being in a terracotta pot that isn’t sealed). After finding your site, I believe mine is a burle-marxii ‘Amagris’.

  12. Carolyn on said:

    Hi Arno,

    What a well done and informative web page! For a bit of global perspective…. I live in northern Wisconsin in the northern US. I was trying to figure out why my houseplant always had brown leaves and kept dying back – I typed in striped leaf houseplant and your link came up!

    It looks like it is a Ctenanthes which has a slightly different leaf pattern but is similar to the burle marxii. It flowers little white flowers sometimes. It has a low spreading habit. I had it in a sunny, dry, warm spot for a long time and moved it to a lowlight spot in the bathroom a week ago, it seems better. Based on your info above it should be, however it’s very cool – it is crazy cold this morning here (12F) and the bathroom is chilly, so I will have to find a warmer spot and perhaps mist it.

    I wish we could grow these in our climate (US zone 4)! I have Hosta plants in my garden which sound as if they fill the role of the Ctenanthe in Australia.

    If you have any advice for growing these as a houseplant, please let me know!

    Thank you Arno!!

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Carolyn

      Great to hear from you.

      Regarding your plant, I would tend to keep it in the warmest room you have over winter and keep the potting mix ‘just moist’ and not too wet. It might pay to place it on top of a tray of pebbles and keep this topped up with water so there is some humidity around the plant, but the pot does not sit in the water. I would imagine that the heating at this time of year may be drying out the air out, and this, along with the cool temps, may be resulting in the brown leaves.

      Once the inside temperatures rise above 70F you can start to water your plant more regularly and give it an occasional liquid feed and it should spurt into growth.

      Arno

  13. Bill Skacej on said:

    Hi Arno,
    Most informative article Ctenanthes I’ve ever come across.
    I’m a landscaper in Melbourne and have Lubbersiana happily thriving in my back garden. Very low maintenance (I hardly ever have to water), beautiful understory plant. Recently tried to source some but struggled to find a supplier even in Queensland and NSW. Any suggestions? Can they be propagated from cuttings?
    Cheers, Bill Skacej.

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Bill

      I’m glad you enjoyed my article. Its good to know that Ctenanthes are growing well in Melbourne.

      Yes, it has been a while since I saw C lubbersiana for sale in a nursery, even here in Queensland. However they are very easy to propagate. You can divide your existing plant, or you can take a cutting.

      Cuttings are simple. They are best taken during the warmer months of the year. Simply cut one of the branching stems a couple of cms below a node (the swollen area – often where the stem branches). I tend to cut the top 2 to 3 leaves in half and remove all the others. I plant them in a pot of sandy media (half coarse washed sand and half good quality potting mix), and place in a warm, humid shady location. If the air is dry, you could cover the cuttings with a plastic bag. They root fairly quickly if conditions are to their liking.

      Arno

      • Bill Skacej on said:

        Thanks Arno,
        I’ve taken cuttings and divided some stems with rhizomes, potted them up, and used some on a job. So far so good.
        Two questions: Will bare rhizomes shoot if potted, and is there any value in putting cuttings in water to promote root development prior to potting?
        Thanks again,
        Cheers, Bill.

  14. Ian on said:

    After doing a search of the data bases Ctenanthe setosa, Cetanathe amabilis and Ctenathe oppenheimiana seem to be all the same plant and growing in the same area of Brazil , can anybody tell me the difference , it doesn’t matter how technical the explanation.
    Thank you

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Ian

      thanks for your email. I have checked a few of the databases I commonly refer to and have not found the Ctenanthes you have mentioned above listed as the same plant. Perhaps you can provide me with a little more information?

      You are quite correct that these 3 species are all native to the forests of southern Brazil. However this is a very large area and one of the most biodiverse regions on earth. I grow all three plants and find them to be quite different in growth, habit and in particular they have different inflorescences.

      Ctenanthe setosa has petioles covered in hairs which can be quite irritating when maintaining the plant. It is a strong growing plant with leaves generally attached at ground level. C amabilis produces many branching stems well above the ground and is thus more of sprawling plant. It seems to prefer moisture – hence is most widely grown in the wet tropics. C oppenheimiana is a much smaller, slower growing plant. If you study the photos above you will note the varying leaf shapes and leaf colours found on each of these 3 species.

      I hope this helps you with your ID.

      Arno

  15. hoda nofal on said:

    very fantastic groups of plants

  16. Florencia on said:

    Hi Arno,

    I’ve just recently stumbled across this plant when I was looking for some air purifying indoor plants, this one was not on my list but I was taken by the beauty of it. I googled a bit on it when I got home and was thrilled to see it originates from the same part of the world I was born!!

    Anyway, I’m actually writing to ask if you know why it is called the “never-never” plant?

    Thx Florencia

    • Arno King on said:

      Hi Florencia
      This is a good question….I had always thought this name reflected that they were hardy plants and that they would never ever die. I’m sure I read this somewhere. However, now that I have tried to verify this supposition, I can find no references.
      Perhaps someone else knows?
      Arno

  17. Vikki on said:

    My never never house plant does not seem happy. It’s losing leaves. Any ideas and help would be appreciated

    • Hi Vikki – the most common reason that houseplants lose their leaves is to do with either over- or under-watering. Sometimes if you’ve let the rootball dry out for too long, when you water the plant again the water just runs down between the rootball and the inside of the pot. You see water running out the bottom but it hasn’t rewet the plant roots. You need to soak it in a bucket of water for several hours, and/or use a soil wetter when you water. However too much water is a more common problem for house plants than too little. Ctenanthes are well-adapted to dry conditions and if they get too dry they will let you know by rolling their leaves in to conserve moisture. But if you keep them too wet, they are likely to rot and die out.

  18. Great review of an apparently much neglected genus. Have to admit that also in my garden Ctenanthe setosa “Grey Star” was toddling around, neglected and in a completely overgrown pot. Leaves were rolled & the plants looked ratty – having read Arno’s paper the Ctenanthes will now be potted up individually, nurtured back to live and then move under our Lychee tree into the shade – tough terroir where nothing really grows, but if they do there will be other cultivars joining in (cv. ‘Burle Marx’ looks great). Thank you Arno, I have leaned a lot about how useful Ctenanthes can be in the garden. Cheers, Florian

    • Arno King on said:

      Hello Florian

      I’m glad my article was helpful. and inspired you. Yes Ctenanthes are great plants to have in the garden.

      It has been very dry here in my Brisbane garden and I have limited water available for watering, hence garden plants looked quite sad. In recent weeks we have had some good rain and the Ctenanthes, which had rolled up leaves, are now looking fresh and lush again. They are such great survivors.

      Arno

      • Florian on said:

        Hello Arno,

        it was, absolutely ! Having individually potted up the Ctenanthes and being watered a few times they look much better; once the soil under the Lychee tree has been improved they will go in there and with a little irrigation hopefully thrive. They are indeed great survivors, despite my ignorance :-).

        Cheers, Florian

        • Arno King on said:

          Hello Florian

          the Ctenanthes should thrive under the Lychee tree. I am sure they will enhance this area of the garden and reduce your general garden maintenance.

          Arno

  19. eileen fiell on said:

    I have just read your interesting article with lovely photos of ctenanthes. I purchased one from the local supermarket as it was so attractive. It is the tricolour and it has done very well outside in limited sunlight. It will have to come in soon as the temperature is 10c today. I live in the Columbia Valley of British Columbia, Canada so these are definitely houseplants most of the year. Now I think I will try propogating some more plants from this one as they are so lovely for shady corners, in their pots of course! Will definitely look for other varieties when in a commercial greenhouse. Thanks so much for the great information for this denizen of the almost frozen north!

    Eileen

    • Arno on said:

      Hello Eileen

      great to hear from you, and to know Ctenanthes are being grown in British Columbia.

      Arno

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