By Larry Hodgson
The panda plant is a classic succulent houseplant and has been available for decades. Certainly, it was already widely available when I started taking an interest in houseplants in the 1970s.
This succulent with thick leaves covered with white hairs and dotted with brown markings does have something vaguely pandalike in its appearance, although other people find more of a link to kittens and call it pussy ears. And its fuzzy leaves really are its claim to fame. It can be an interesting plant for children: not only will they love the names panda plant and pussy ears, but they’ll enjoy stroking its silky leaves.
The panda plant is originally from the island of Madagascar, off the coast of southeast Africa, where it grows as a small shrub under arid conditions. It’s one of some 60 species of Kalanchoe found on the island (there are yet another 60 that grow in mainland Africa, plus a few in Asia). That it should be in the Crassulaceae family should surprise no one: there is a clear family resemblance between the panda plant and the popular jade plant (Crassula ovata).
The panda plant is also grown as an ornamental in Madagascar. According to local superstition, it brings wealth to the families that grow it.
The panda plant reaches up to 3 feet (1 m) in height in the wild, but more likely about half that indoors, where its growth is very slow. It forms an upright plant at first with densely hairy stems that branch abundantly at the base, leading to an overall bushy appearance. Stems become brown and woody over time, losing their fuzz, but are often fully hidden by the foliage on young plants. As it ages, though, lower leaves drop off and the stem is revealed.
The leaves are alternate and arranged in a dense rosette, at least at the top of the stem. They’re sessile (there is no petiole) and very thick. The form varies widely and can be obovate, ovate, oblong or almost cylindrical. The leaf is concave above and convex below, like a thick spoon. There are notches towards the tip. The leaf measures up to about 2 to 3 inches (5–7 cm) long and about 1 inch (2.5 cm) wide.
Of course, the most striking aspect of the leaf is that it’s abundantly covered with white to pale green hairs with deep brown patches at the tip and on the teeth. Soft to the touch, they give the plant its pandalike appearance.
The hairs are vital to the plant’s survival in the wild. They reduce the effect of drying winds leading to decreased water loss due to evaporation and also offer insulation from the heat of the midday sun. They likewise reflect some of the intense tropical sun away from the leaves and thus prevent cell damage.
The panda plant rarely blooms indoors: it needs full sun and many years of culture in order to do so. Outdoors in an arid tropical climate, mature plants produce branching flower stalks about 1 foot (30 cm) tall bearing clustered tubular flowers in green, red or brown that are just as fuzzy as the rest of the plant. The result is more curious than attractive, so if your panda plant never blooms, you won’t be missing much.
The plant’s botanical name, Kalanchoe, is derived from the Cantonese word for the plant. As for the epithet, tomentosa, it means, quite appropriately, “covered with fine hairs.”
There are several cultivars of panda plant on the market differing mostly in leaf size, form and color.
‘Chocolate Soldier’ is more widely available than the species and has become the classic panda plant. It has more reddish brown on the leaf edges than the species, whose darker brown coloration tends to be limited to the leaf notches. Other cultivars include ‘Black Tie’, ‘Golden Girl’, ‘Cinnamon’ and ‘Teddy Bear’, the latter three with a more golden appearance.
‘Dorothy Brown’ differs from the others in being almost entirely chocolate brown when grown in full sun.
Other than ‘Chocolate Soldier’, you’ll likely only find these cultivars at nurseries specializing in succulents.
You may also see a similar but smaller species, Kalanchoe eriophylla, also from Madagascar, sold as snow panda plant or snow white panda plant. Its leaves are of a similar shape, but unnotched, and are covered with white hair, giving them a silvery-gray appearance. They show little to no brown, except occasionally at the leaf tip when grown in intense light. Its pink flowers are borne on short stems … but again, don’t count on bloom … at least, not if you grow the plant indoors.
Caring for a Panda Plant
Light: Think sun, sun and more sun: a sunny south window, for example. It will survive medium light quite well, but for the best possible growth and coloration, it does need plenty of sun or at least very intense artificial light. Put it outdoors for the summer (acclimatize it gradually first) for the best coloration. Only in an arid tropical climate (hardiness zones 11 to 12) can you consider growing it outdoors all year long.
Watering: Like almost all succulents, water the panda plant abundantly, soaking the root ball fully, then let the growing mix dry out well before watering again. Try not to moisten the leaves when you water, as that can stain the leaf hairs.
Rule of thumb: In spring, summer and early fall—the plant’s growing season—, when the soil feels dry to touch, wait two days more, then water. In the winter, when growth is at a standstill, when the soil feels dry to touch, wait seven to ten days, then water.
Humidity: This plant tolerates dry air. It does not like extremely high humidity, so would be a very poor choice for a terrarium.
Fertilizer: Feed lightly, say at one quarter of the recommended dose, during the spring to late summer growing season. Any fertilizer will do.
Temperature: The panda plant tolerates both heat, even extreme heat, and average indoor temperatures. It appreciates a cooler fall and winter (combined with reduced watering), with temperatures as low as 45˚ F (7˚C). It is not frost tolerant.
Grooming: Remove any dirt on the leaves with a small brush or cloth. Remove damaged, yellowing or dying leaves as needed as well as faded flowers stalks (if the plant blooms). Older specimens may need a bit of pruning if their growth is irregular or if they have lost too many lower leaves. Cut the stems back as harshly as needed and new growth will soon appear, totally rejuvenating the plant.
Repotting: Young plants are often sold in tiny 1 ½ inch (4 cm) pots, but this really doesn’t leave them any space to grow and is very stressful to the plant, so don’t hesitate to pot them up into 3-inch or even 4-inch pots (7.5 to 10 cm) pots when you get them home. Some people like to grow them in clay pots, as they allow more air circulation to the roots, and that’s fine, but panda plants also do perfectly well in plastic ones. All pots should have at least one drainage hole.
As the plants grow over the years, move them gradually into larger and larger pots every two years or so. Any houseplant, cactus and succulent or general-purpose potting soil will do.
Repotting is best carried out in spring, summer or early fall.
Panda plants are often incorporated into dish gardens along with succulents sharing similar needs, like sedums, echeverias, crassulas, haworthias and small aloes and do very well there, although they’ll likely need to be pruned back over time. They don’t usually do so well mixed in with cacti or living stones, although commercial sources often sell such arrangements, since they don’t share the same growing requirements.
Multiplication: The fastest way to produce new panda plants is by taking stem cuttings during the spring or summer. Cut off a stem about 3 to 4 inches (7 to 10 cm) tall, remove the lower leaves and insert the cut end into a pot of growing mix. Keep it nearly dry at first, watering more as the cuttings put out new leaves, showing they have rooted. If you put three or four cuttings into a pot, it will give you a lovely specimen plant in just a few weeks.
You can also root leaves by removing them carefully and inserting them into a pot of soil. Roots and a baby plant will slowly appear.
Seed is essentially never available.
Toxicity: All parts of this plant are poisonous to humans and pets: it’s not deadly, but can make you sick. Poisonings are extremely rare, though: it’s just not the type of plant either humans or most animals find any interest in tasting. Even so, do place this plant out of the reach of toddlers and young pets.
Problems: Rot is undoubtedly the most likely problem with the panda plant and is best avoided by growing the plant in very bright light and making sure the growing mix dries out before watering again. When rot is caught early, it’s usually possible to take leaf or stem cuttings and thus save the plant.
Rot is especially likely during the winter, especially under cool conditions, in which case the plant should only be watered when the soil is very dry and the leaves starting to soften, indicating the start of wilt.
Mealybugs, soil mealybugs and scale insects are possible problems and best prevented by isolating new plants. Sprays of insecticidal soap or neem oil will help control any pests that do show up.
The panda plant: cute plant, cute name and so easy to grow… if you have sun!