Characterized by dark-hued leaves with stark white veins, the zebra plant looks just as striking as its animal namesake. When they bloom, they become even more spectacular. During the late summer and early fall, a well-cared-for zebra plant will produce vibrant yellow flowers that will brighten any room in your home. While they do require a little extra care than some hardier houseplants, zebra plants are well worth the effort.
While the zebra plant can thrive outside in certain climates, it's far more popular indoors. Whether you're growing from seeds, using a cutting, or transplanting a seedling, make sure you start with suitable soil — neutral or slightly acidic (pH level 5.6 to 6) and well-draining. If you can't find the right potting mix at your gardening supplier, blend one part multipurpose garden soil with two parts peat moss and one part coarse sand. This creates an excellent ground environment for your zebra plant.
In the wild, zebra plants can reach six feet tall. When grown indoors, potted, they typically reach one to two feet, with a width anywhere between one and five. While they may have a large spread, they don't need a large pot. Even at full size, they typically grow best in a pot around five to six inches in diameter and height.
Since zebra plants originate from tropical Brazil, many people assume they need strong sunlight. However, direct sunlight can actually scorch a zebra plant's leaves. Although zebra plants do naturally grow in a hot climate, they bloom under the canopies of jungle trees, so they thrive in indirect light or partial shade. If you have control over the temperature of your growing environment, aim to keep the room around 65 to 80° Fahrenheit.
Zebra plants grow best when their soil is kept consistently moist, but they're also sensitive to overwatering. This makes a well-draining soil all the more important. Ideally, aim to saturate your plant once every two weeks: continue until you see water running from the pot's drainage holes. Note that you'll get the best results by using slightly lukewarm water (just over room temperature), as this mimics the properties of tropical rain. Zebra plants also prefer a humid environment, so you may need to mist the leaves occasionally, or keep a humidifier running nearby.
Whiteflies are one of the most common pests zebra plants face. These winged insects cluster on the undersides of the leaves, drinking the sap and leaving behind yellow dots. Aphids and mealybugs are also common and cause similar leaf damage as they drink the plant sap. Thankfully, all these pests are simple to address. First, remove and destroy the damaged leaves. Next, use sticky traps to catch the remaining adult bugs. Finally, spritz with insecticide or neem oil to prevent the infestation from returning.
Zebra plants thrive on humidity — unfortunately, so do many houseplant diseases. In particular, fungal diseases multiply quickly in warm, moist environments. Leaf spot is one of the most common issues; it leaves unsightly lesions on your zebra plant's leaves. Blight leaves similar spores, eventually causing leaves to collapse. Your zebra plant's stem is also susceptible to infections like stem rot, which turns the stalk to black mush. You can attack fungal diseases that affect the leaves with a copper-based fungicide, but stem and root fungi cannot be cured, and you'll have to discard the plant.
Even when your zebra plant is getting the right amounts of sunlight and water, it still needs additional nutrients to grow well— especially if you want to see those gorgeous yellow flowers. During the spring and summer, feed your zebra plant a quick-release liquid fertilizer every one to two weeks. Alternatively, you can add slow-release fertilizer pellets to the pot's soil, but pellets tend to have a weaker effect on zebra plants. Fertilization is not necessary during the fall and winter months.
There's no need to head to the garden store if you want a second zebra plant; they're easy to propagate with cuttings. Carefully snip off the side shoots (around four to six inches long), then root them in nutrient-rich soil. Cuttings need a higher moisture level than seed-grown zebra plants, so many experienced gardeners grow them in specialized terrariums. If you don't have one to hand, you can get the same effect cheaply by propagating in a clear plastic storage box. Just remember to drill a few ventilation holes into the lid. Keep your cuttings enclosed until the roots develop well, then transplant to regular pots.
Typically, zebra plants are grown for purely decorative purposes. With their dramatic leaf pattern and bright yellow followers, they make an eye-catching feature in any room. That said, they do also have a useful benefit: air purification. Zebra plants are one of the many houseplant species that help remove harmful toxins from the environment, making the air in your home more breathable.
Scientifically the Aphelandra squarrosa, the zebra plant is a species of its own, part of a genus that evolved in the tropical Americas. The plant itself is native to Brazil — specifically, the Atlantic Forest. It was discovered by botanists in the 1800s, recorded in a volume of the Flora Brasiliensis taxonomy series. Since then, the zebra plant has made its way around the world, becoming a popular houseplant for beginner and experienced gardeners alike.