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Plant of the Week: Zebra Plant

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Zebra Plant
Latin: Aphelandra Squarrosa 'Louisae'

Zebra Plant

The zebra plant is a beautiful houseplant, but it's relatively uncommon in our nurseries and greenhouses.  As gardeners explore the rich diversity of new plants, they shouldn't overlook some of the old standbys from a bye-gone era.  Drab winter days can be made more cherry by the bright yellow spikes of this beautifully variegated plant.

The zebra plant is a member of the acanthus family, and as such, shares common features with other members of the family such as different colored veinal markings on the leaves and flowers borne in distinctive terminal spikes.

In its native Brazil, Aphelandra is a woody shrub.  Here, where we grow it as a flowering houseplant in 6-inch pots, it's seldom seen over a foot tall.

Aphelandra leaves are oval with a pointed tip.  They're borne in pairs on a thick, purple tinged stem.  The leaf blade is a bright, waxy green with the midrib and the veins marked a beautiful contrasting creamy-white.

The flowers are produced at the terminal end of the stem in a four-sided yellow spike that has bracts overlapping one another like shingles on a roof.  The flowers, which protrude from the waxy yellow spike, are yellow, two lipped and persist for only a few days.  The showy bract remains attractive for six to eight weeks.

This beautiful pot plant found its way into our homes during the Victorian era, when tropical plants were all the rage.  The true species is not in cultivation, but hybrids seem to have been grown during the last half of the 19th century.

A Belgian nurseryman, Louis Van Houtte (1810 - 1876), was hot on the trail of South American orchids and began sending out plants collectors after 1845.  Other promising plants were sent back, along with the orchid collection, and a number of these interesting tropicals accumulated in European greenhouses.  During this period the Van Houtte firm selected an earlier cultivar called 'Leopoldi,' and from this plant selected 'Louisae' about the turn of the 20th century.

Aphelandras usually flower in the fall but they can be induced to bloom during any season if they're given the right conditions.  The control of blooming is similar to that with geraniums.  The plants must accumulate a prescribed number of days of bright light and good growing conditions to flower.  If the light is too dim or the environmental conditions too far from the optimum, you get only leaves.

Plants that flower in this fashion are called "photo-accumulators."  The zebra plant requires average night temperatures above 65 degrees and light levels around 650 footcandles for about 12 weeks before flowers will form.  As beautiful as these plants are, they are from the hot and humid Brazilian tropics and can resent the cool, dry winter conditions found in many homes.

To grow them to perfection, they need to be planted in highly organic, extremely well drained soil.  The potting medium must never be allowed to dry out completely.  Those that have allowed their zebra plants to wilt a time or two knows the results.  The lower leavers fall off and the plant takes the shape of a miniature palm tree.

After the bloom fades, the spike should be removed and the plant relocated to a warm, bright location.  In the summer, they can be moved to the shaded patio.  Given routine fertilization and care, they should bloom again come fall.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - February 9, 2001


The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.