Believe it or not, toilet paper doesn’t grow on trees. Photo: dripinventory.wordpress.com
The COVID-19 crisis has seen many runs on toilet paper throughout the world, with stores emptied of this precious commodity. Perhaps the time has come to rediscover the original toilet paper—plant leaves!—and reincorporate them into our lives.
11 Toilet Paper Plants From All Over The World
Many plants have been used for anal cleaning over the millennia, including the following:
- Common Mullein or Cowboy Toilet Paper (Verbascum thapsus)
Yes, the common biennial weed. It forms a broad first-year rosette of fuzzy, soft, gray-green leaves.
In year two, an attractive upright single flower stalk of yellow blooms up to 6 feet (2 m) rises from the center and blooms last most of the summer. You could grow it around your outhouse or dry the leaves for winter use. Full sun. Well-drained to dry soil. USDA hardiness zones 3–9.
Might I suggest that Olympic or Greek mullein (V. olympicum) has leaves just as soft and is a prettier plant, with dramatic multi-branched clusters of yellow blooms and is just as readily grown from seed?
Better yet—far better!—is my favorite mullein, silver mullein (V. bombyciferum), with just about the softest leaves found on any plant, abundantly covered with silky white hairs, making the whole rosette silvery white. And it produces stunning single silver-downy stalks of yellow flowers in year two like the others.
Both species grow under the same conditions as common mullein and are just as hardy: zones 3–9.
- Lamb’s Ear (Stachys byzantina)
This popular groundcover perennial is grown for its soft, downy, silvery leaves which, it turns out, have other purposes than beautifying. A creeping plant that readily fills in empty garden spaces, it also produces upright silvery flower stalks of purplish-pink blooms. The leaves are evergreen (eversilver might be a more appropriate word in this case), so you’ll have access to it all year … unless it is buried for months under snow in your area. Grow it in full sun and give it good drainage. Hardiness zones 3–8.
- Blue Spur Flower or Indian Coleus (Coleus barbatus, formerly Plectranthus barbatus, often sold under the illegitimate botanical name Plectranthus forskohlii)
This is a medicinal herb with large, thick, fuzzy leaves on square stems I first ran into under “boldo brasileiro,” the name it goes under in Brazil, when Brazilian friend gave me a cutting. It becomes huge—6 to 8 feet tall (2-2.5 m)—if you don’t pinch it back, but then if you pinch it back you won’t see the fall-forming spikes of blue flowers: a true gardener’s quandary. But if you’re growing it indoors, I suggest keeping it under control.
This is one you could grow in your home bathroom … at least a sunny one, as it makes a good houseplant. Outdoors, it’s subtropical, surviving but dying to the ground in zone 8, but resprouting there come spring. It will grow as a shrub in frost-free areas. Full sun. Good drainage. Hardiness zones 8–10.
- Large-leaved Aster or Lumberjack Toilet Paper (Eurybia macrophylla, formerly Aster macrophyllus)
This is a perennial aster native to eastern North America with very large, heart-shaped leaves at the base, conveniently soft, and rather discreet pale violet-blue daisylike flowers in the fall. A shade-tolerant species, you’ll often find it at the forest’s edge in the wild. It prefers moist soils and does wonderfully in home gardens. Hardiness zones 3–8.
- Cheeseweed or Wild Mallow (Malva neglecta and M. parviflora)
These two similar-looking species are common weeds throughout much of the world. You probably already have one or the other in your garden already, so the necessary leaves won’t be hard to find. They have rounded, somewhat lobed, soft leaves and typical five-petaled mallow flowers in pink or white. Both can be either annuals or perennials. They get the name “cheeseweed” from the seed head, looking a bit like a wheel of green cheese. Full sun. Hardiness zones 3–8.
You’ll find other mallows that are just as useful. In England, tree mallow (M. arborea, formerly Lavatera arborea), a very attractive and very tall species (up to 10 feet/3 m!), is known as dunny leaf or Irish toilet paper. Zones 6–10. It acts as an annual, a biennial or a perennial, depending on local conditions.
In Mexico and Southern California, a native mallow (M. assurgentifola) is the toilet paper mallow of choice. Hardiness zones 9–10.
- Velvet Groundsel (Roldana petasitis, better known under its former name Senecio petasitis)
Possibly your favorite toilet paper plant if you’re from its native range: Mexico and Central America. It’s apparently so abundantly used for that purpose that it has become quite rare in the wild in some places due to overharvesting. This shrubby groundsel bears huge, velvety, somewhat rounded, lightly lobed leaves on upright stems, plus masses of yellow flowers in the winter. It’s becoming popular in California gardens as an ornamental, adding a tropical look to the landscape. Full sun. Well-drained soil. Hardiness zones 8–10.
- Corn Lily or False Hellebore (Veratrum viride and others)
Various Veratum species (V. viride, V. album, V. californicum, etc.) found throughout the Northern Hemisphere go under the name corn lily or false hellebore, although they look nothing like corn, lilies or hellebores. They are often recommended as toilet paper for their very large, soft, strangely pleated leaves. Mature specimens (they’re very slow to mature) produce a tall stalk of greenish to white or purple flowers, depending on the species.
Still, I’d personally hesitate to recommend this one, as all species are highly toxic. Now, I mean you have to eat them to poison yourself (a wipe is harmless and indeed, traditionally, the leaves have been used as a poultice, so external use is safe), but still… When nature calls and you’re in nature, fine, but maybe you shouldn’t bring these into the home for bathroom use. Partial shade. Hardiness zones: 3–7.
- Dombeya, Tropical Hydrangea or Wild Pink Pear (Dombeya burgessiae and others)
Say you’re in the wilds of Africa and you suddenly feel an urgent need. What can you do? Well, you could turn to this large shrub (6–10 feet/2–3 m), best known for its large clusters of hanging pink flowers, rather like hydrangea blooms hung upside down, but also has large leaves of an appropriate texture for toilet paper use. It’s a popular toilet paper plant on its native continent, but an ornamental shrub elsewhere in the tropics and a greenhouse plant in colder climes. You could grow this in your bathroom … if it’s sunny enough and big enough. Bright light outdoors, full sun indoors. Average moisture. Hardiness zones 9 b-11.
- Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major)
This plant is a common weed worldwide and easily recognizable too, with its low rosettes of parallel-veined oval leaves and short upright green to brownish stalks of tiny flowers and seeds, thus a handy plant for travelers to get to know. You’ll find it in lawns, fields, vacant lots, gravel driveways and along roads. Note that broadleaf plantain is also a medicinal plant and it has painkilling and antiseptic properties, a bit like an aloe, nice to know if you’re suffering from hemorrhoids. Full sun. Well-drained to poor soils. Hardiness zones 3–9.
Another worldwide weed with toilet paper uses is curly dock (Rumex crispus).
- Peppermint Pelargonium or Peppermint Geranium (Pelargonium tomentosum)
A popular indoor or outdoor herb, depending on your climate, and it does indeed smell like peppermint. One could say it “cleans and refreshes”. Of course, there are dozens of other scented pelargoniums in a wide range of perfumes you could try, from lemon to pine and roses, but P. tomentosum has particularly soft leaves. Certainly easy enough to grow in a sunny bathroom! Full sun. Well-drained soil. Hardiness zones 9–11.
- Bushman’s Friend or Rangiora (Brachyglottis repanda)
I discovered this plant while in New Zealand where, apparently, no one brings toilet paper on camping trips since this large-leaved evergreen shrub or small tree grows so conveniently pretty much everywhere. Its leaf underside is as soft and white and downy as one would hope. Large sprays of tiny cream flowers appear in spring. Full sun to partial shade. Moist soil. Hardiness zones 8–11.
Test Before Use
Always test any toilet paper plant before lavatory use. The above plants are well known for this use and you might think that means they are safe, but some people are extra sensitive (I know someone who is highly allergic to scented pelargoniums, for example), so try rubbing a leaf on a small patch of your wrist. If no reaction occurs within 24 hours, you’re good to go.
More to Discover
There are other toilet paper plants all over the world; many more than in this short article. And if you’re given to experimenting, you can probably find others in your own back yard. You’ll be looking for:
- Fairly large leaves;
- Leaves that are quite resistant and don’t tear easily;
- Leaves with fuzzy surfaces, as they are usually more absorbent;
- Leaves that are soft to the touch, as they will also be soft to the butt;
- Leaves not only lacking irritating spines or hairs on their own surface, but even on stems you might have to handle.
So when nature calls, call on Mother Nature to supply the necessary wipe.
Many thanks to Isabelle Boulard for suggesting this article.