The colorful leaves of fittonia make it among the most interesting houseplant varieties you can grow. Also known by the common names of the nerve plant, the net plant, and the mosaic plant, it’s easy to see why this native of tropical rainforests has become a favorite of so many houseplant growers. This article shares care information for the many varieties of fittonia available today.
All about the nerve plant
While there are many large, green tropical houseplants, fittonia is adored for its compact stature (the stems reach a height of just 3-6 inches) and brilliant foliage. As far as indoor plants go, the nerve plant is one of the most visually unique. A native of South America, the foliage is a beautiful “coat of many colors”.
The leaf blades and leaf veins are different colors, making the pattern on each leaf look like a medical sketch of a mammal’s central nervous system, with a network of branching nerves running throughout (hence the common name of nerve plant). The exact color combination of the leaf blades and veins varies based on the variety of fittonia you are growing. Some have dark green leaves with white veins, others have light green leaves with pink veins. There are selections with pink leaves and green veins, and those with deep green leaves and red veins. The diversity of nerve plant colorations available is pretty stunning.
All that diversity is because there are many cultivars and hybrids of fittonia that are grown as houseplants. The primary species is Fittonia albivenis (the Argyroneura Group is silver/white veined and the Verschaffeltii Group is red veined) but there are dozens of different cultivars and hybrids.
Favorite fittonia varieties
A few favorite nerve plant varieties (many are available from Costa Farms):
- ‘Frankie’ – boasts bubblegum pink leaf blades and veins with green edges and a sprinkling of green throughout.
- ‘Pink Star’ – has small, wavy-edged leaves that are pink with a green edge when young. As the leaf matures, the space between the leaves becomes a deep green.
- ‘Ruby Red’ – green leaves with crimson striping and a green edge
- ‘Fortissimo’ – a larger plant size and has bright green leaves with soft pink veins
- ‘Black Star’ – leaves are slender and striped in purple-red
- ‘Daisy’ – larger, rounder, gray-green leaves edged and veined in white.
- ‘Superba’ – large leaves with creamy white veins. Taller and more upright than other varieties.
The color combinations are endless!
The ideal environment for fittonias
As a tropical plant, nerve plants prefer humid environments and warm temperatures. That, combined with their small stature, make them excellent candidates for a terrarium or bottle gardens.
Since most homes have dry air and do not provide the humid conditions fittonias prefer, place the plants on a wet pebble tray or place a small room humidifier near the plants during the winter when the air is especially dry indoors due to forced air heaters. Covering the plant with a decorative glass cloche is another option, though you’ll need to lift it from time to time for air exchange.
You’ll never quite be able to attain the high humidity levels these plants evolved in but do the best you can. Regular misting can help, too. Avoid cold air drafts and don’t place the plants near your heating ducts.
All that being said, nerve plants can certainly be grown without the use of a terrarium or humidifier. Mine is growing on a small shelf next to my kitchen sink, where moist air from cooking and dishwashing help raise the humidity. If you have a bright window in your bathroom, consider placing your fittonia plant there, where steam from showers raises the humidity, even if only for a few minutes a day.
The best light for fittonia plants
Fittonia performs best with bright, indirect light. Having evolved as a low-growing plant in the rainforest, it does not like intense direct sunlight. The leaves can become washed out with too much light. Nor does the plant like very low light levels. With too little light, the colors of the leaves and veins are not as intense. Consider it a low- to medium-light houseplant.
The best window exposure for a nerve plant is an east- or west-facing window or a few feet back from a south-facing window where it receives bright light but not direct sun throughout the day.
Looking at the plant’s native growing conditions, it’s not hard to discern that it requires consistently moist soil. Reliable moisture is key, but not saturated soils. Do not let the soil fully dry out in between waterings. The plants readily wilt when they need to be watered, but it’s best for plant health to not let them get to the point of wilting before watering again. On average, expect to water nerve plants every 7 to 10 days. Yellowing leaves are a sign of overwatering
To water fittonia plants, put the pot in a sink or bathtub and wet the growing media until it is fully saturated. Let the excess water run through the pot’s drainage holes. It does not matter how much water is applied at once, as long as there are drainage holes in the pot. Overwatering comes from watering too frequently, not from adding too much water at any one time.
Do not allow water to sit in the plant’s saucer as it results in constantly soggy soil that could lead to root rot. Poor drainage results in many houseplant deaths, not just nerve plants.
Fertilizing nerve plants
Add a water-soluble or liquid houseplant fertilizer once every 4 to 6 weeks from late spring through early autumn. Do not fertilize in the winter months when the plant is not actively growing. While fertilization is not essential, occasionally fertilizing nerve plants can help support plant growth and coloration. Pinching back the plants from time to time keeps their growth compact and dense, but it is not necessary.
Every few years, you’ll need to up-pot your fittonia. Though these are small-statured plants, their root system will eventually outgrow the pot and the plant will need to be transplanted. Choose a pot that is 2 inches wider in diameter than the current pot and has an adequate number of drainage holes. Opt for a high-quality houseplant potting soil and use your fingers to gently tease apart any pot-bound roots before settling the plant into its new container.
Nerve plant propagation is simple and straightforward. Stem cuttings that contain a minimum of 3 nodes (point where a leaf meets the stem) are the easiest way to go.
Use a sharp pair of needle-nose pruners to remove the cutting from the mother plant. Trim off the lowest two leaves, stick the bottom inch of the cutting in rooting powder, and insert it into a clean pot of sterile potting soil. Water the cutting in then cover it (pot and all) with a clear plastic baggie or plastic cloche to maintain higher humidity levels around the cutting. Remove the cover only to water when needed. Do not let the cutting dry out.
Place the potted cutting in a window where it will receive moderate, but never direct, sunlight. In 4 to 5 weeks, your fittonia cutting is fully rooted. Remove the baggie or cloche and you’re all set.
Though they are not a common issue, two pests may make a home on your fittonia plants. Mealybugs, which look like tiny white tufts of cotton, and aphids, which are small, pear-shaped insects, like to suck the sap from fittonias. If they find their way into your home and become problematic, a spray of horticultural oil or insecticidal soap solves the problem.
Severe infestations are rare but will require a leaf wash in the shower to dislodge the pests, followed by a spray of one of the two previously mentioned products.
Whether you’re growing a variety with deep-green leaves and hot pink veins or a selection with a different color combo, nerve plants are a stellar addition to your houseplant collection. They do not disappoint!
This video provides a quick rundown of how to care for fittonia plants:
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