Friday, November 5, 2010

Aphelandra Squarrosa

Native to the South American tropical forests, Aphelandra squarrosa is a plant species in the family Acanthaceae (Acanthus), which consists of almost 250 genera and about 2500 species. Some well-known cousins include Hypoestes phyllostachya (Polka Dot Plant), Fittonia verschaffeltii (Nerve plant), Crossandra infundibuliformis (Firecracker Flower) and Strobilanthes dyerianus (Persian Shield).

Growing to about 24 inches in height and characterized by waxy, dark green ovate leaves with ivory-white markings along the veins, this compact, fairly popular plant is easily recognized by its common name: the zebra plant. The inflorescence produced consists of colourful terminal spikes that are composed of long-lasting, bright yellow bracts and flowers. This is a dual-purpose plant that is used as a flowering and foliage specimen. For about six weeks, you’ll enjoy a lovely (and unusual) flower display. After the flowering period is over, pinch off the faded blooms and enjoy as an attractive foliage plant.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the zebra plant is a little difficult to grow in the average home under ordinary room conditions. Just like its handsome (but temperamental) cousin Strobilanthes dyerianus (Persian Shield), Aphelandra squarrosa will decline rapidly if its needs are not met. Added effort is essential if you want to enjoy your plant for more than a few months, and if you want to prevent it from becoming leggy and leafless. Of course, you can always opt to treat this delicate species as a seasonal plant, which many do, and discard it when the flowering period is over.

But if you’d like it to stick around for awhile, here’s what you need to know:

One of the most important requirements in keeping a zebra plant healthy is (yup, you guessed it) ample humidity. Although average levels will be tolerated for awhile, high humidity is preferred – and crucial. Try not to compromise this need; if the air is too dry, the leaf tips and margins will brown, leaves may be dropped and spider mites will consider moving in. Add a humidifier nearby, place the plant on a pebble tray filled with water, surround the pot with damp peat, place it in a room where humidity is naturally higher (like a bathroom) or group together with other plants to form a microclimate with higher humidity.

Use a highly-porous, fast-draining soil and keep it evenly moist, but never soggy, while the plant is actively growing. The zebra plant belongs to the frustrating water-juggling club where the fine balance between too much and too little water, both of which can cause lower leaves to brown and fall off, must be mastered – and respected. Reduce watering around midwinter when your plant takes a much-needed rest. Keep the soil barely moist during this period, but never allow it to dry out completely.

Aphelandra squarrosa likes a lot of light but needs to be kept away from full sun. Choose a spot that offers bright, indirect lighting; never expose to the summer’s hot, midday sun, which will damage the plant’s leaves. Direct sunlight is not recommended by many but over the years I have discovered that a little early morning or late afternoon sun in an east or west facing location is handled very well. Low light can be endured for awhile but the plant won’t bloom; a well-lit area is needed to encourage flower formation.

While actively growing, provide your plant with warm temperatures; the ideal range is between 18°C (65°F) and 21°C(70°F), but Aphelandra squarrosa will manage quite well in a location where it’s anywhere from 16°C - 29°C (60°F - 85°F), . Protect from cold drafts; do not allow the temperature to drop below 16°C (60°F) for prolonged periods during this period. The zebra plant needs to kept warm; exposure to cold will cause the plant to drop its leaves. During the winter rest period, the plant prefers a cooler, shadier spot where the temperature is as low as (but never below) 13ÂșC (55°F), but it’s not compulsory.

Feed once a month at full strength, or every two weeks at half strength, during the active growing period. Do not fertilize while the plant is resting. Remove the flower spike after the plant is finished blooming to force it to develop side shoots. Cut back hard in early spring (or after flowers fade) for bushier, compact growth. Start new plants from cuttings.

Aphelandra squarrosa requires a little added effort to keep it happy and healthy, but it’s certainly worth the effort. This is one of the few plants that appreciated for the beauty of its leaves and flowers. And even if you can’t get it to flower again, it’s worth keeping for its ornamental foliage.


  1. It sure is, crafty gardener. I don't often see them at the local greenhouses, probably because they're not that easy to grow indoors.