If you’re a new rattlesnake plant owner and just realized that your plant’s leaves seem to move – your eyes are not deceiving you. Rattlesnake plants, or Goeppertia insignis, change the position of their leaves according to the time of day, which can be disconcerting if you’re not expecting it. I will discuss this phenomenon, including why it happens and what to do if your plant isn’t exhibiting this healthy behavior.
What You'll Learn Today
Why Do Rattlesnake Plant Leaves Move?
Until recently, rattlesnake plants were part of the Calathea genus of plants. Although reclassification added them to the Goeppertia genus, both Calathea and Goeppertia fall under the Marantaceae family and share many characteristics.
Many plants in the Marantaceae family, including rattlesnake plants, change the position of their leaves throughout the day. This positioning results from a type of circadian rhythmic movement called nyctinasty.
During the day, a rattlesnake plant’s leaves are nearly horizontal or parallel to the ground. This position is optimal for sunlight absorption and allows them to photosynthesize efficiently.
Although botanists continue to debate the actual evolutionary reasons for their nightly positions, some of the hypotheses surrounding the phenomenon include:
- Water runoff: Excess surface water falls off of the foliage when the leaves move to a vertical position. Excess water on the leaves can interfere with photosynthesis.
- Temperature control: An upright position allows leaves to conserve a small amount of heat by reducing the amount of exposed surface area.
- Protection from herbivores: Foliage that remains spread out at night is more noticeable to predators, so changing position at night might stave off late-night snackers.
Do All Rattlesnake Plant Leaves Open and Close?
Although nyctinasty is the mark of a typical, healthy rattlesnake plant, you may notice that some of your plant’s leaves move very little, or sometimes not at all. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Here are some potential reasons why your rattlesnake plant may not get the memo to participate in this process:
Like many other plants, the leaves of a rattlesnake plant have a natural life cycle. As a leaf gets older, the plant may start to focus its energy on newer, healthier leaves.
Aging foliage may start to turn yellow, and then brown, and eventually fall off. It might not undergo routine nyctinastic movements during this process, and that’s okay.
Since rattlesnake plants use light exposure as a signal to open or close, receiving too much or too little light may interfere with the process. If your plant is in a room with a bright light that stays on 24/7, it could trick the plant into keeping its leaves in the daytime position.
If your rattlesnake plant isn’t moving, assess the light situation when the sun goes down. Then decrease the light it’s exposed to as needed, if applicable.
Plants that perform nyctinasty use a mechanism on the base of the leaf called a pulvinus to facilitate foliar movement. If the pulvinus is damaged, it may not be able to move as it should.
Check your plant for damaged leaves. If the damage is affecting the health of the leaf, feel free to remove it so that the plant can focus its energy on healthier foliage.
A rattlesnake plant that is generally unhappy may not move as much as it should, if at all. If the above fixes don’t apply to your plant, you’ll have to assess your care routine and figure out what it’s missing.
How Can I Make My Rattlesnake Plant Move?
If you suspect your rattlesnake plant isn’t moving because it’s unhappy, but you aren’t sure of the cause, you’ll have to investigate. To help you get started, here are the three most important factors that determine whether your plant will thrive:
Typically, when one of your houseplants isn’t growing or is growing very slowly, it’s a good idea to try giving it some more sunlight. With rattlesnake plants, however, sometimes the opposite might be true.
Rattlesnake plants are happiest in areas where there is no direct sunlight. For example, a north-facing window with bright indirect sun is a great option.
If you only have a south-facing window, you can try moving the plant a few feet away from the window, so the sun’s rays don’t touch it. You can also place a sheer curtain between the plant and the window to filter the light.
Like many other members of the Marantaceae family, Rattlesnake plants love to be kept consistently moist but not soggy. They tend to be dramatic when the soil becomes too dry for their liking, showing their displeasure through curled, wilted leaves, and sometimes dropping leaves.
Conversely, if your rattlesnake plant is watered too frequently for its liking, it might develop root rot. Roots can rot when a plant is exposed to more water than they can absorb, leading to a lack of oxygen.
A good rule of thumb is to feel the soil with your fingers regularly and only water your plant when the soil is dry at least one inch below the surface. Then, pour until the water comes out of the drainage holes.
Rattlesnake plants are known for their sensitivity to some of the chemicals present in tap water. Experts recommend using distilled water only to water your plant.
Along with many of its relatives, rattlesnake plants are picky about humidity levels. Many rattlesnake plant owners report that their average household humidity simply doesn’t cut it for their plant.
When rattlesnake plants are regularly exposed to low humidity levels, they can develop brown, crispy, curled leaf edges. Depending on the severity of leaf damage, your plant could bounce back with no issues if you increase the humidity.
The best way to raise the humidity for your plants is to put a humidifier in the room. You can also try placing the plant in a terrarium or grouping it with other tropical plants.
Caring for houseplants provides a rewarding learning experience and allows us to observe how nature works in our homes. Nyctinasty is a perfect example of how there’s never a dull moment in plant ownership.
If you’re ready to get lost in the digital plant universe, look up time-lapse videos of plants like the rattlesnake moving its leaves. Here’s an especially mesmerizing example: