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Why Do Prayer Plants Pray?

Prayer plants are part of the larger Marantaceae family. The nyctinastic movement that these plants exhibit is a response to changes in light, which earned them the name prayer plant.

The movements may not be apparent to you, but the leaves of prayer plants can rise and lower themselves, depending on whether it’s daytime or nighttime.

If you’re curious about this interesting phenomenon and you’re thinking about getting a prayer plant, I’ll walk you through the scientific reasons behind the nyctinastic movement typical of these plants and how to take care of them.

Why do Prayer Plants Pray?

There are a few theories that explain why the movement triggered by changes in light happens, and all have to do with how the plant has evolved to survive and thrive in its environment.

Here are some of the theories forwarded by botanist to explain the nyctinastic movements of prayer plants:

– Protection from insects

According to one explanation, the leaves of prayer plants fold up to prevent pests and other insects from feeding on foliage and increase the survivorship of the plant.

– Better water or moisture retention

With leaves being open or lowered during the day, they can better absorb moisture and catch rainwater.

However, during the night, when there is no light and evaporation slows down, there’s no need for increased water retention, so the plant’s leaves rise.

– Better temperature regulation

According to a different theory, nyctinastic movement can help the plant better regulate its temperature during the night.

– Protection from fungal issues

With leaves staying open during the night, they also stay moist and wet, which favors fungal issues to appear. When they rise, however, water can fall off more easily, keeping the leaves dry.

Of all the theories put forward by botanists, the theory according to which prayer plant leaves rise up to keep water off leaves and prevent fungal diseases is what seems to be gaining more traction.

Ultimately, all these theories can be true at the same time enhancing the chances of the plant surviving in its environment.

How do Prayer Plants Pray?

While plants don’t have muscles that they can contract when they sense the transition from light to dark, prayer plants have something called pulvinus, which is a thickening at the base of the plant’s leaves.

These pulvinus cells swell or shrink based on the plant’s circadian clock triggered by whether it’s nighttime or daytime, resulting in the praying movement after which prayer plants got their name.

Despite this feature of plants in the Marantaceae family, disturbances in the plant’s circadian clock can cause some prayer plants to stop praying.

Reasons Why Prayer Plants Not Praying

The indoor environment is a far cry from the rainforests that prayer plants know as their natural habitat.

Therefore, many things can interfere with the nyctinastic movement that would happen in the rainforests where prayer plants grow:

– Lack of light

One of the most important causes of a prayer plant not praying is a lack of light. Prayer plants thrive in bright to medium indirect light.

If there isn’t enough light to create a remarkable contrast between day and night, prayer plants won’t bother closing up their leaves.

If there isn’t enough light reaching your prayer plant, move it to a location with more bright, indirect light.

– Too much light

In the rainforest, prayer plants receive dappled light and rarely, if ever, receive strong direct light. If exposed to direct light, the plant may stop praying. Leaves can also get sunburned and bleached.

– Lack of humidity & water

Prayer plants are accustomed to the humidity in rainforests, so if the air is too dry in your home, there’s no benefit to the plant closing up it leaves to ward off fungal diseases and excess moisture.

Growing prayer plants indoors is a big change from what these plants are accustomed to from an evolutionary perspective.

If the plant is no longer exposed to the same environment or it’s exposed to radically different conditions, it doesn’t make sense to continue a certain behavior or other.

This could explain why some prayer plants will stop praying or will resume praying if changes are made in their environment.

Where Should You Place Your Prayer Plant?

Prayer plants need medium bright to bright indirect light to thrive in the confines of your home.

A little direct light exposure in the morning hours is not going to damage them, but strong direct light will not do any favors for it.

A location that is a few feet away from an east-facing window should provide ideal light conditions to your prayer plant.

Because of their preference to high humidity, you may also want to pick a room that’s naturally more humid like a kitchen or bathroom.

Of course, you can always increase the humidity around your prayer plant by using a humidifier or a tray of pebbles and water.

While misting works too, it’s best to limit that since it can increase the incidence of fungal diseases.

How to Care for Your Prayer Plant?

Other than ideal light conditions and a humid environment, there are two other important things to look out for when growing a prayer plant:

– Watering

While they don’t enjoy dry soil or sogging wet soil, prayer plants need constantly moist soil. Aerate the tap water before using it so chlorine can escape from it and use tepid, room temperature water.

– Potting medium

To help the potting medium stay moist, you also need to choose a potting medium that retains some level of moisture but allows excess water to drain. A potting medium that contains perlite, bark and coir will fit the bill.

Wrap Up

Prayer plants have evolved to withstand or to take advantage of certain conditions in their natural habitat. Their nyctinastic movement reflects that adaptability.

Indoor environments are not ideal for these plants, which is why some varieties (e.g. Calathea) are notoriously difficult to grow.

That said, if you understand what your prayer plant needs, you can meet its basic needs and make changes should it stop praying or growing.

Updated: April 16, 2021

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