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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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’ 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.
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.