Calathea lutea has always been a greenhouse plant for me but this year, after five years of caring for it, we had to make way for new plants and waved goodbye to our beautiful giant calathea to a home big enough to accommodate it.
If you are ever lucky enough to grow Calathea lutea, you should leap at the chance though, as these are plants that grow to 4m at full maturity, and even young plants can reach 2m tall at their center, with a spread of 1-1.5m across.
In this guide, we’re going to talk about how to grow, keep, and care for Calathea lutea, and the strict limitations on where you can grow them in the US.
What is Calathea Lutea?
Calathea lutea is known as the Mexican Cigar Plant, for its red tubular flowers that stand tall on spiked stems between their gigantic oval leaves. They are the largest species of calathea in cultivation, and particularly hard to find, even as seeds in most of the northern hemisphere are highly sought after by collectors.
Cigar Calathea is such a fascinating plant that it has earned more common names than most tropical plants put together but is most commonly known as the Mexican Cigar Plant, the Cuban Cigar Calathea, or Pampano (translation: Vine Shoot), all in reference to its unique towering flowers.
Calathea lutea is one of the most widespread calathea in the wild, with plants found all over South America in tropical rainforests, with some plants found to have naturalized around tropical and subtropical Asia.
Mexican Cigar Plant, Cigar Calathea, Pampano
Outdoor in warm climates (can be grown indoors with tall ceilings)
Tropical flowering plant, grown for its foliage
3m tall; 3m wide
Semi-shade in a warm location
Bright green ovate leaves with a pale silvery underside
Red tubular flowers give the cigar Calathea its name
Summer in shaded tropical conditions
Poisonous for Pets:
Non-toxic to cats and dogs (edible starchy roots for humans)
Calathea Lutea’s Growing Habits
Calathea lutea are clump-forming tropical foliage plants with 1m long leaves and 30cm tall flowers on 1.5m high spikes. Cigar Calathea are incredibly efficient at making the most of low light conditions so should never be planted in full sun, but can be guarded in a greenhouse by covering with bubble wrap, or a lime wash, top filter the light and reduce the UV exposure slightly.
They grow from large underground rhizomes which store energy all year round to help them cope with dry spells and send up masses of new shoots after heavy rainfall, so should be kept well-watered to keep them looking at their best.
Unlike most calatheas, they have huge thick, banana-like, leaves, which hold water reasonably well, so they don’t need misting quite as often as other Calathea species.
How to Grow Calathea Lutea
Cigar Calathea can be grown indoors if you have enough space (3-4m tall ceilings), but prefer a shaded greenhouse that is kept humid all year round and doesn’t drop below 40°F.
It’s worth noting before you think about growing Calathea lutea at home that mature plants require at least a gallon of water per week (more in summer), so they are very needy plants.
Make sure you have a big enough container, and ideally one big enough for a small plant to grow into because repotting something that big is always going to be a challenge.
Like all calathea, it is possible to cut them back to the ground and they will re-sprout (which is really the only way to move them if you need to transfer them from one space to another).
Growing Calathea Lutea Indoors
If you are growing Calathea lutea indoors, you need high ceilings. These plants can grow up to 4m tall and require semi-shaded conditions, which can be hard to achieve in most homes, but if you have that space, you will not find a more impactful tropical plant.
How to Grow Cigar Plant Outdoors
There are two options for anyone considering growing Calathea lutea outdoors in the US. Firstly, if you’re right on the southern border, you might actually get away with Cigar Calathea in the garden as long as there is no risk of frost.
Secondly, calatheas lutea are wonderful plants for tropical greenhouses or orangeries, which help to modify and sustain the right humidity for these tropical giants.
Calathea Lutea Propagation
Calathea lutea are best propagated by division in a domestic setting. It’s possible to germinate them by seed, but incredibly unreliable, and requires time and space.
If you do want to try growing Cigar Calathea from seed, you will need:
- Rich garden compost that holds moisture, mixed with vermiculite for slow nutrient release and drainage.
- Heated propagator.
- 9cm plastic pots.
- 2-3 months of patience.
Calathea lutea do not need much sun to germinate, but they do need heat, so sow each seed in a small plant pot filled with a 60:40 mix of vermiculite and compost. (Learn how to make your own compost here.)
Water well, then cover with a clear plastic bag secured with an elastic band to keep moisture completely sealed in. Then place the whole set-up in a heated propagator and wait, and wait… and wait.
Propagating Calathea Lutea from Division
The most sensible way to create new Cigar Calathea plants is by division, as they will take quickly, and grow well in their first year provided they get the right conditions.
To propagate Calathea lutea from division, follow this step-by-step guide:
- Using a study garden fork, dig around the base of a small section of your Calathea lutea where there is a natural divide at the base of the leaves.
- Slice down between two main sections of the plant near where you’ve dug to separate the rhizomes.
- Use your fork to coax the roots out of the soil, using the thick petioles (leaf stalks) for leverage.
- When you manage to get a good section of root out of the ground, use clean secateurs or shears to remove most of the top growth, and place the root ball in a new container, or elsewhere in the garden/greenhouse with fresh compost.
- Water the divided plants well for the next few weeks until you see new growth.
Calathea Lutea Care Guide
What Fertilizer to Use
Calathea lutea should be fed regularly with any liquid feed you have to hand. They do not require specialist feeds, so liquid seaweed or a general-purpose balanced houseplant feed would be fine.
In early spring it’s good to add a layer of compost around the base of the plant to reduce water loss as the days start to lengthen, and this will also help to feed the roots.
Watering Calathea Lutea
Pampano plant need at least a gallon of water per week when fully mature, so should be drenched when the soil surface around the base of the plant is dry.
In terms of humidity, they have thicker leaves than most calathea, so require less misting, but should still be lightly misted every 2-3 weeks, and more in dry weather.
Pruning and Repotting Cigar plant
Calathea lutea are usually too large to repot comfortably, so should be planted into a container large enough to cope with their mature size (3x3m).
Only prune calathea lutea when leaves are dead, damaged, or diseased to prevent infection from spreading between leaves. Otherwise, they should be left to their own devices.
Common Cigar Plant Pests and Diseases
Calathea lutea are sturdy plants that are unlikely to be killed by a pest infestation but they do suffer from spider mites if they are allowed to dry out, and mealybugs enjoy the same dry conditions too.
To prevent infestations keep them in a reasonably humid, but well-aerated space (conditions that neither common pest enjoys), and if you ever spot them, rinse them off with a hose and treat the soil with diluted neem oil. Leave for a few hours, then rinse through with plain water.
Calathea lutea is likely to get yellow leaves at some point during its lifetime, as a result of over-watering. Any calathea in cultivation, grown indoors, or in a greenhouse has to be managed carefully to re-create its natural habitat, so inevitably we will be overzealous as gardeners, and either over-water or over-mist at some point.
Don’t worry, it’s not going to cause lasting harm to your plant, just reduce watering, and allow the plant to dry off for a couple of weeks. When the soil is dry to the touch again, and the leaves have started to perk up, restart watering gradually.
Calathea Lutea FAQs
Can Calathea lutea cope with full sun?
Calathea lutea are taller than most calatheas, so grow closer to the canopy, meaning they enjoy slightly more sun than most Calathea species, but they still prefer some shade and will dry out too quickly between watering if exposed regularly to full sun.
Is Calathea lutea air-purifying?
Calathea, like most tropical plants, takes carbon dioxide from the air and pumps out oxygen. They also absorb airborne toxins so are often considered to be air purifying plants, but surprisingly, the best air purifiers are plants with more delicate leaves with a greater surface area like ferns.
Are you looking for more Calathea options? See our Calathea varieties list below:
Wrapping Up Our Calathea Lutea Guide
Calathea lutea is definitely an eccentric choice for a gardener and requires time, space, and a lot of care and attention to grow well, but they are beautiful, bold, plants that, if you grow them well, can completely transform your home and garden.
The further south you are, the more likely you’ll be able to grow this giant cigar Calathea to its full potential but don’t be put off by its size. Like any plant, there are ways to cope and adapt, and I hope our guide to growing
Calathea lutea helped you get to grips with its growing habits, and hopefully demystify some of the bigger questions.