The foliage on zebra plants looks (or should look) splendid year-round. Gorgeous and plump with their dark green foliage and striking white veins that add an oomph in aesthetic appeal.
With the right zebra plant care, you’ll be able to get an even better appearance from the golden bracts appearing when it blooms.
Get any part of the care plan wrong though, and the leaves will drop and it will not bloom. It’s a complex plant when things go wrong.
So many issues can stress this plant. You need to know about all the persnickety behaviors that indicate concerns to its healthy growth to stand a chance of correcting things quickly.
The Ins and Outs of Zebra Plant Care
Required Temperature Range
Getting the temperature right is pivotal to maintaining steady humidity and ideal soil saturation without having to continually water your plant. The ideal temperature is around the 60oF (15.5oC) mark.
The danger zone is 55oF (12.7oC). When temps drop below 55oF, that’s when problems arise related to watering. The main reason being that cooler air holds less water vapor resulting in dry air.
The problem with dry air for plants is that it causes the tips of the leaves to turn brown. When temps drop, or the plant is exposed to temperature extremes like cold spots near windows and doors, beside radiators, or near vents in the home, the leaf surface of the plants become cooler.
That’s when leaf color diminishes, and the leaves on zebra plants crinkle and curl in response to inadequate temperatures.
Soil Type and Maintenance
It is important to understand that the zebra plant is sensitive to overwatering. The best way to combat watering concerns is to pot it up in a type of soil that holds water for only a few days, but drains fast enough that wet soil doesn’t remain saturated for long. Perlite is how you do that.
The best soil for zebra plants will always have a good amount of perlite balanced with peat moss to support aeration and drainage.
Regular multi-purpose potting soil mixes (the types available at all garden stores) are sufficient. Not always the best though as it depends on how much peat moss, coco coir, or perlite are blended through the mix.
To make your own potting mix for a zebra plant, a good ratio to go with is one part of peat moss mixed with one part perlite, or coco coir, and one part regular potting soil. Garden soil may be used, provided it is amended with perlite, coarse sand (builders/sharp sand – not play sand), and peat moss.
If you do plan to use garden soil in place of regular potting soil, check the pH levels first. The pH levels of garden soils have a high variance ranging from 3.5 to 7. The preferred pH for zebra plants is neutral to acidic, which means 6.5 to 7.0 pH.
If your soil is too acidic, you’d need to increase the pH of soil by mixing in lime-based products such as dolomite lime which contains calcium and magnesium carbonate – both will increase the pH. Wood ashes and bone meal also raise the pH of soils.
Always aim for a pH of 6.5 to 7.0 for zebra plants because acidic soils will reduce the availability of macro nutrients while high pH reduces availability of micronutrients. A pH of 6.5 to 7.0 ensures that all nutrients in the soil can be used by the plant.
Without being able to use available nutrients, the plant would appear undernourished. The problem there is when you attempt to fix growing problems with fertilizers. It’d likely wind up over fertilized, yet have no benefits due to the soil condition being insufficient.
As is the case with all houseplants, the best growing conditions are those that closely match their natural habitat. In the case of the Zebra plant, these are native to Brazil where they grow in tropical rainforests under the dense canopy of almighty large trees.
For that reason, the best light suited will be bright yet indirect sunlight.
Do note though that the light requirements need to be balanced with humidity to have any chance of the zebra plant blooming. The more light this plant gets the better.
Just be careful not to expose it to direct sunlight which is far too strong and will result in leaf scorch and under intense light, you’ll likely see the zebra plant leaves curling.
If you lack the environment to get plenty of natural light, full spectrum lighting could solve a myriad of problems associated with a lack of sunlight.
The Essential Humidity Levels
The preferred humidity range is around 60% to 70%. Go too low, it won’t have enough moisture to bloom. Too high and you run the risk of fungal diseases, which is a danger to all types of warm-loving tropical plants.
The best spots in the home for higher humidity are kitchens and bathrooms. The humidity increase comes from running hot water from showers, baths, or in the kitchen, from boiling water. A simple trick to raise humidity fast is to fill a sink or tub with hot water and leave it. The steam raises humidity.
In any other room around the house, the use of a humidifier may be required to keep humidity levels elevated around the plant. The smallest, which are often called desktop humidifiers work like automatic misters, spraying a fine mist of water into the air directly around plants.
If you do use a humidifier, keep in mind that the room temperature directly correlates to how long the moisture will remain in the air. Warm air can hold more water vapor than cold or even moderate temperatures.
If for example, you have your plant in a large open area, such as an open plan living room, the larger area will be harder to maintain higher temperatures than a smaller sized room. For that reason, hallways may not be the best spot for these plants.
The size of humidifier used needs to be appropriate to the size of the room it will be used in. Desktop or tabletop humidifiers should be sufficient in small spaces. For larger areas, a larger humidifier would be better suited to maintain consistently elevated humidity.
Even without any type of humidifier, you can still raise humidity by misting the plant using a regular spray bottle.
Getting the Watering Right!
Provided the soil, temperature, and the humidity are kept at the ideal levels consistently, you should only need to be watering your zebra plant once every two to three weeks.
When watering, completely saturate it. What you’re relying on is the soil doing the work of draining away excess water. The plant will only drink as much as it needs.
In terms of temperature, the hotter it is, the more will be lost to evaporation. In other words, what doesn’t drain, evaporates.
When to be more vigilant is in the peak of the summer months when lots of the moisture in the soil evaporates before the plant gets a chance to use it. That’s the only time to increase the amount of water you give a zebra plant.
When watering, don’t use cold water either. This is a plant that detests anything cold, whether that’s the air, a cold draft, or being fed a chilled drink. Use lukewarm water.
The most worrying aspect of watering is adding too much. That can be fatal! What to look out for is brown tips on zebra plant leaves. That’s an indicator that the soil is water-logged and needs time to dry out.
Use a balanced liquid fertilizer diluted to half-strength and add it every one to two weeks during its active growing season, which is spring through to fall. Don’t add fertilizer to dry soil and never feed it over the winter as the zebra plant goes dormant.
Potting / Repotting
Recommended is to repot a zebra plant every year in the spring. Never in the fall because this plant goes into dormancy.
Repotting any plant while it is dormant is disruptive to its rooting system. When you repot a plant, the roots will always be disturbed, and some of them will get damaged.
Damaged roots cannot heal while the plant is dormant. That’s why you should always repot plants in the spring. It is just coming out of dormancy at that time.
Anytime during the plants active growing season, it can be repotted so even if it’s later in the season that you notice the roots are crowding the pot, go ahead and repot in a bigger pot that is just one size up.
Given these are decorative plants, the design of the plant is often heightened with a decorative planter. If you are using these, the plant itself goes into a normal plastic planter with drainage holes, then gets placed in the decorative planter with the base lined with gravel to absorb the excess water.
The advantage of the gravel at the base of the planter is the higher level of humidity from the water evaporating, releasing moisture back into the soil. It helps keep it moist for longer.
Mastering Zebra Plant Propagation
Once you have a mature plant, you’ll want to know how to propagate a zebra plant. You can do this the traditional way using a healthy stem and leaf cutting, or the alternative is to use what’s called the air layering method of propagation.
The Alternative Air Layering Technique
Air layering is a propagation technique used on the parent plant to get new roots established while still being attached to the top of the parent plant. The advantage of this technique is that you are able to grow a more mature sized cutting, which is essentially a mini plant ready to be repotted after a couple of months.
The steps for air layering are as follows:
- Make three incisions on the trunk, running them right around the main trunk. Each cut should be about 1” apart totaling a section of roughly 3 inches. Trim the bark between the top and bottom incisions. The thicker the stem, the deeper the cut should be. Where this cut is made, the plant will be growing upwards and be cut off for repotting. Keep that in mind when making the cuts as everything that grows above where you cut will be the new plant.
- Peel the bark away from between the incisions.
- Rub rooting hormone on the stripped bark.
- Apply a clump of moistened sphagnum moss. Not soaking wet, just moist.
- Wrap a clear plastic bag over the sphagnum moss and seal it tightly to the trunk using twist ties.
- Wrap the aluminum foil over the plastic bag.
The air layering process takes roughly a couple of months for roots to become established. Once the roots sprout to a good size, the foil and plastic can be removed, then the cutting removed from below the sphagnum moss.
The cutting with the roots and moss can be mixed with potting soil and the cutting potted in a new container.
Problems and Pests
Fungal Leaf Spot Diseases
Anthracnose, Botrytis cinerea (gray mold), Cercospora, and Graphiola are just some of the known funguses that can cause problems on zebra plants. Each are funguses known to inflict houseplants requiring high humidity.
The only way to prevent leaf spots from fungal infections is to regularly clean the leaves. Fungal spores are miniscule and can spread through the air. Once a spore lands on the leaf, it can quickly spread.
Wiping the leaves regularly omits some of the danger. If it does spread throughout the leaf surface, the best course of action is to cut the affected leave(s) off.
It should be noted that not all yellow spots are indicative of a fungal leaf spot disease. Yellow spots on zebra plant leaves can also be caused by inadequate watering.
If fungal infections become a problem, the solution is to increase ventilation around the plant, or if it has become crowded, pruning a zebra plant back to improve air flow will help.
The highly humid environment that zebra plants thrive in help to keep most pests at bay. Still though, they aren’t immune and some pests can wreak havoc on the zebra plant.
Unfortunately, the most dangerous are also the tiniest. They are really hard to spot and you are more likely to notice the damage they do before you notice the insects. Usually, white or yellow spots on the leaf surface.
The ones that cause the most damage are the sack-sucking pests. Mealybugs, spider mites, aphids, scale insects, thrips, and whitefly. Thankfully, each are relatively easy to rid from your plant using neem oil, insecticidal soap or dabbing with a q tip dipped in rubbing alcohol.
Growing up with a mom who filled her home (inside and out) with all sorts of plants, Lisa got her start in gardening at a young age. Living now on her own with a home and yard full of plants (including an indoor greenhouse), she shares all the gardening tips she’s gained over the years.