Ill.: clipartmac.com & pinclipart.com, montage: laidbackgardener.com
Some indoor plants seem to be made for touching. Covered in fuzz or soft hair, they just seem to invite stroking, like a puppy or a kitten. Even when you see them in a garden center, it’s hard to keep your fingers off them.
Of course, plants don’t cover themselves in down just to please humans. Abundant hair (plant hairs are called trichomes) has a purpose, but that purpose depends on the plant. It can be:
- To protect against nibbling animals and insects (many avoid fuzzy plants);
- To better diffuse chemical repellents;
- To keep drying winds from damaging leaf and stem cells;
- To catch insects (sticky hairs are found on many plants, including carnivorous ones);
- As protection from cold and frost, especially for plants growing at high altitudes;
- To allow the plant to absorb water (the case wth bromeliads);
- As vegetal sunscreen, protecting against harmful UV rays, in the case of plants growing in extremely sunny sites;
- To reduce evaporation and prevent water loss.
There is price to pay for hairiness, though: less light gets through the fluff to reach the photosynthetic cells on the leaves or stems. The result is that most hairy plants need intense light or even full sun; you just don’t find many of them in shady nooks.
A Bit of Vocabulary
A plant’s botanical name often hints clearly at its downiness. The following endings may change from -um to -a or -us, but they all have meanings having something to do with hairiness:
Fuzzy Wuzzy Houseplants
Here are some of the better known fuzzy houseplants you could grow in your home.
Most echeverias are smooth-leaved, often covered with whitish, waxy coating called bloom, a different kind of protection from the burning sun of their arid native home in Central and South America. But many do have true trichomes and abundant fuzz, including such species as Echeveria pulvinata, E. harmsii, E. setosa and such popular hybrids as E. ‘Doris Taylor’.
Typically, echeverias form dense ground-hugging rosettes of succulent leaves and no visible stem, although many of the hairy types are more upright with thick stems and less densely spaced foliage. They produce arching terminal flower stems of red, orange, yellow or pink flowers. All like intense sun and will etiolate in even medium light. They’re succulents, so let them dry out well before watering again.
Purple Passion Plant
Stunningly different, this creeping plant (Gynura aurantiaca or G. sarmentosa: the exact botanical name seems a bit sketchy) bears toothed leaves covered not with white or gray hairs, but purple ones. They’re most concentrated on new growth and become diluted as leaves expand. They’re not as soft as they look, but rather a bit scratchy. There are also variegated versions of this plant, such as ‘Pink Ice’, with pink markings.
The purple passion plant is not a succulent and needs regular watering. Bright to medium light are fine … and you’d to best to remove the unattractive and rather stinky orange flowers.
The spiderwort family (Commelinaceae) has more than its share of fuzzy plants. Most have a similar creeping habit and sessile sword-shaped leaves and are often grown in hanging baskets. Most have blue, purple, magenta or white 3-petaled flowers that last only one day. Hairiness seems to show up here and there in more than one genus, so related species are often glabrous (smooth). Here are a few examples:
The white velvet plant (Tradescantia sillamontana) has green leaves covered in soft white fuzz. There is a variegated form (Tradescantia sillamontana ‘Variegatad’) with irregular white streaking.
Pussy ears (Cyanotis somaliensis) bears smaller green leaves with a modest amount of hair on the leaf surface, but a fringe of white hairs around the edges like a kitten’s ear.
C. kewensis, now C. beddonomei, is so covered with brownish hairs it’s called the teddy bear vine.
The plants above are semi-succulent, so give them good light and let them dry between waterings.
Less fuzzy looking, but a real joy to touch is the pinstriped inch plant (Callisia elegans; now C. gentlei elegans). The silver striped leaves are covered in barely visible short hairs, giving a curiously slippery feeling. It’s not a succulent and will appreciate watering as soon as its potting mix is dry. Medium to bright light is fine.
Kalanchoes are desert plants, mostly from Madagascar, although some are from southern Africa, with succulent stems and leaves. They’re in the crassula family, so come by their succulence naturally. Many have smooth leaves, but some are quite hairy.
The popular panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa) may appear dense and rosettelike when you first buy it as a young plant, but will soon show its upright nature, with thick fuzzy stems and equally fuzzy gray-green leaves with red-brown teeth. There are many clones with more or less fuzz, differing leaf shapes and varying brown markings.
Many other kalanchoes are hairy, although not always as cuddly looking. I find the felt bush (K. beharensis), a huge variety (it can turn into into indoor tree!) with giant gray-green arrow-shaped leaves quite forbidding: I certainly wouldn’t want to hug it! The leaves take on a reddish tinge in full sun. There are plenty of cultivars, including the ever so spiky and definitely uninviting ‘Fang’.
Copper spoons (K. orygalis) can be gray and fuzzy, although the hairs are very short. However, its claim to fame is the coppery coloration of its young leaves.
Give all kalanchoes full sun and drier conditions. The species mentioned are all easy to grow, but shy bloomers. And don’t eat them: they’re poisonous.
Also poisonous is their close relative and panda plant lookalike, bear’s paws (Cotyledon tomentosa, including C. t. ladismithiensis, formerly C. ladismithiensis). Bear’s paws is a succulent shrub with extremely fat fuzzy leaves with “claws” at the tip that, in some cultivars, turn brown when grown in full sun. Give it the same conditions as a kalanchoe.
The best known of these is the old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis), a columnar cactus totally covered in long white hair. Don’t hug this one, though: it hides vicious spines under its woolly covering. Cute and very slow growing.
The Peruvian old man cactus (Espostoa lanata) is quite similar, but with golden spines that peek out from the white hair.
The silver torch cactus (Cleistocactus straussii) has narrower, often clustering stems and white hair that is not as long or dense. It’s one of the rare columnar cacti that is likely to bloom in the average home, with curious tubular red flowers, but only after many years.
There are also fuzzy cactus among smaller species, like the powder puff cactus (Mammillaria bocasana), a small clumping ball-shaped cactus with plenty of white fluff and pretty pink to white flowers to boot!
All woolly cactus need intense sun, careful watering (let them dry out thoroughly before watering again) and cool to cold but frost-free winters.
Hair in the Air
Most tillandsias, also called air plants (Tillandsia spp.), are at least somewhat grayish and if you look closely, you can see they are in fact covered in short white trichomes (hairs). They’re bromeliads, most growing as epiphytes, clinging to other plants by their short but grasping roots. Unlike most plants, the roots don’t absorb water. Instead, their trichomes are water absorbant, allowing the plant to get all the water its needs from rainfall, mist or even dew.
Most stores that carry tillandsia have a least a few totally fuzzy tillandsias, like T. tectorum, which is so white with trichomes you have to wonder how it carries on photosynthesis.
These more silvery the plant is, the more sun it will need. Water these plants not by their roots, but by soaking them in water, then letting them dry. Grow them by fixing them to a piece of wood or some other object. Normal indoor temperatures are fine.
There’s more on growing air plants in the article How to Make Your Air Plants Thrive.
If you enjoy soft, fuzzy, hairy plants, come back tomorrow for the second part of this article.