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OPEN OR CLOSED, PRAYER PLANT DELIGHTS

When it comes to science, almost everyone remembers a familiar rule: Animals move by themselves; plants don't.

But plants do move by themselves, and for a variety of reasons. There's the telegraph plant, for example, with its tiny leaflets that twitch and wave about.

And then there are plants of horror-movie fame that trap and gulp down insects, animals and even people.

My favorite moving plant, though, is the prayer plant (maranta). The prayer plant is unlike other plants that are known for the movement of different parts of their anatomy. This plant isn't sensitive to touch, and it doesn't trap insects like the fierce Venus' flytrap, with special leaf-closing activities controlled by sensory hairs.

The prayer plant just folds up its act every night. In fact, no matter what time it is, if you put the plant in the dark, its leaves will close together within about 15 minutes. The folded leaves resemble hands folded in prayer, hence its common name.

The most colorful members of the family are the maranta leuconeura variety. The maranta leuconeura erythroneura, or red-veined prayer plant, has deep red, raised veins in a type of herringbone pattern, while maranta leuconeura kerchoviana, or rabbit track plant, has markings evenly spaced along the center of each leaf. Both varieties have soft oval leaves that are purple underneath and mostly pale green on top.

Prayer plants make excellent houseplants. They stay fairly compact and bushy, making them ideal table plants. And their cultural demands are fairly simple.

Marantas like bright, indirect light but will bleach out in direct sun. They grow best in average house temperatures of between 65 to 70 degrees.

A prayer plant should have an all-purpose houseplant soil that is well-draining. The plant doesn't like to dry out, a situation that may cause browning leaves.

Seeing new leaves appear is interesting, because they emerge rolled up like scrolls and then slowly unfurl their colors. Old leaves are not quite as attractive, because they fade and turn crispy brown. It's simple, though, to cut off these spent leaves.

Prayer plants sometimes become susceptible to mealybugs, which crowd around the base of the leaves, or spider mites, which usually hide on the leaf undersides. One way of dealing with either infestation is to rinse the plant gently in the sink.

This method of pest control is slower than using pesticides, so you will have to repeat the process, but it is safer both for the plant and you.

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