Larry Hodgson has published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in English and French. The Laidback Gardener team is committed to making Larry’s writings available to the public. This text was originally published in Houseplant Forum, in September 1987.
Soft and Silky Foliage
We grow plants for many reasons: because we like to see them, smell them, eat them, etc. But how many of us grow plants because we like to touch them? Yet many plants have soft, silky foliage that seems to invite petting. Some are so soft that they deserve to be grown just for the tactile sensations they give us when we stroke them.
For years, I have marveled at the tactile sensations of plants and I even show people around my collection by saying, “Go ahead and touch that one! You’ll see!” However, it’s quite possible that I’ve overlooked some very interesting houseplants to touch. If so, just write in the comments section at the bottom of the article.
However, you should take some precautions before rubbing up against any plant. Some plants—especially succulents, cycads and bromeliads—have thorns or needles that can cause unpleasant surprises. Still others look silky, but this is only a deceptive appearance. The velvet plant ‘Purple Passion’ (Gynura aurantiaca ‘Purple Passion’), for example, has leaves covered with a fine purple down, but its toothed edges take all the fun out of stroking it. Also, some very soft plants can cause severe skin reactions in some people. If you are susceptible to allergies, start by touching a friend’s plant before bringing the species in question into your home.
Pelargoniums: Smell and Touch
Pelargoniums (Pelargonium sp.) are among those plants which, even if we like to touch them, can provoke sometimes violent reactions. However, they are still very interesting to touch for those who can tolerate them. We touch them mainly to release their perfume, not for the pleasure of caressing them, because their epidermis is most often rough and sometimes sticky.
There is one Pelargonium that is as pleasant to the touch as it is to smell. This is the apple-scented pelargonium: P. odoratissimum (also known as apple geranium). It is not one of the most widespread pelargoniums, although it does deserve such an honor, because it has several very interesting characteristics. First of all, it is a drooping plant, a bit like the ivy-leaved pelargonium (Pelargonium peltatum), and is therefore at home in a hanging basket. Moreover, it is one of the rare fragrant pelargoniums that bloom easily in our homes. The small white flowers with dark pink veins are very attractive and appear in summer. Best of all, its wavy leaves are covered with delicate, velvety hairs, so the leaves are very soft to the touch.
Its cultivation is very easy. Place it in a sunny window, watering it only when the soil is almost dry. It prefers slightly cooler temperatures during the winter and likes to spend the summer outdoors. As with all Pelargoniums, the failure rate when taking cuttings is a little higher than normal, but I have found that success is almost guaranteed if only perlite is used as a propagation medium. It is said that the odor of this fragrant plant improves when fertilized lightly. In this case, use a fertilizer that is rather low in nitrogen. Finally, another Pelargonium that is pleasant to the touch is P. tomentosum, one of the mint-scented Pelargoniums.
The Striped Inch Plant
Callisia gentlei var. elegans (Striped Inch Plant) : here is a plant with leaves absolutely delicious to touch and very easy to grow, maybe even too easy! Indeed, like its cousin the Tradescantia, it grows so quickly that you have to cut it back continuously to keep it in a presentable state.
It is, however, a beautiful plant: its smooth, triangular leaves are streaked with silver on top and are purple on the bottom. What’s so fascinating about this fluffy plant is that it doesn’t look soft, because the little hairs that cover its surface and make it so velvety to the touch are barely visible. I would put it in first place in a softness contest. It is grown exactly like a Tradescantia, giving it medium to high light and watering it when its soil is slightly dry. It’s supposed to produce small white flowers, but I have never seen any on mine.
Other Commelinaceae to Touch
There are many other plants in the spiderwort family (Commelinaceae) that have fluffy foliage and seem like a good choice for a collection of “cuddleable” plants, but most of them disappoint a bit when it comes time to touch them…. They just aren’t as soft as they look.
However, there are two that I find exceptional in this respect and which have the advantage of having rosette-like growth rather than creeping stems that are difficult to control. These are Palisota barteri, a plant with large green leaves covered with a very silky down that produces unexceptional flowers but very decorative, long-lasting orange berries, and Siderasis fuscata, a very pretty plant with reddish-olive leaves streaked with silver and blue flowers that open in turn for several weeks. Both propagate easily by division and, in addition, Palisota barteri is easy to propagate from seed. Finally, they are just as easy to grow as their cousin the callisia.
An orchid grown for its attractive foliage? Is it possible? Of course it is! Even if orchids have the reputation of having beautiful flowers but not much foliage, it would be surprising not to find some exceptions in this big family.
And the jewel orchid (Ludisia discolor) is indeed quite an exception! Without doubt one of the most beautiful houseplants with decorative foliage, it is also among the softest to the touch. The leaves are so dark green that they appear black and are streaked with a brilliant red. The effect is that of a velvet of such high quality that you don’t need to be asked to touch it.
Strangely, this plant is not popular among orchid lovers who do not find it challenging enough to grow. Indeed, unlike the more typical orchids, the Ludisia grows even in ordinary potting soil albeit a potting soil composed of a large part of sphagnum moss. Also, its spikes of small white flowers can disappoint compared to large-flowered orchids and you may even be told to remove them to stimulate the production of more decorative leaves. Personally, however, I find them very pretty and encourage their growth. Interestingly, while we are told that cuttings are not normally done with orchids, this plant produces creeping stems that root at the nodes and therefore it lends itself beautifully to this method of propagation. For this particularly easy orchid, no special care is needed except for good humidity and moderate lighting.
Gesneriads with Downy Foliage
The Gesneriaceae family is best known for its beautiful flowering plants, but several species also have very fluffy leaves. The leaves of Sinningia hirsuta, for example, are covered with white hairs so long that they are its main attraction. Its dense clusters of white flowers spotted with purple are also worth a look, but are notoriously difficult to obtain.
Another gesneriad with spectacular foliage is Sinningia canescens. This plant produces oval leaves covered with such a dense white down that, in the case of new leaves, there is no trace of green. Even its red flowers are covered with hair… so much so that they look pink to us. However, as the flowers are slow to appear (the plant should normally be at least 3 years old), it is better to consider it as a foliage plant.
Sinningia speciosa is the complete opposite of the previous two, as its dark purple trumpet-shaped flowers are produced in large quantities in the first year. Its foliage – almost black with ivory or silver veins – looks like a rich velvet and one could hardly help flattering it. All these sinningias have tubers and go dormant after flowering. They can then be left completely dry and without light for a few months. At other times they require regular watering, good light and high humidity.
You can have a lot of fun stroking the various hairy-leaved gesneriads, with very different results. Some, including African Violets (Saintpaulia), are not as soft as they look, while others, including Sinningia aggregata, produce an unpleasant sticky sap. Most, however, are very ‘touchable’, including Smithiantha, a plant with velvety red leaves and spectacular flowers.
The Soft Touch of Succulents
Succulents have a reputation for being thorny, but some actually feel very soft. This is true of several plants in the Crassulaceae family (Cotyledon, Echeveria, Kalanchoe, Sedum, etc.) and the genus Senecio. These plants are covered with a very attractive, fine down. You have to be careful with cacti, though, because many have hidden spines. This applies to the Old Man Cactus (Cephalocereus senilis), whose inviting white wool hides sharp needles.
Another plant that looks soft but should never be touched is the Blind prickly pear (Opuntia rufida). This cactus appears at first glance to have no needles and instead its surface is covered with small tufts of innocuous-looking reddish-brown hairs. Unfortunately, these “hairs” are in fact glochids, the worst kind of spines, because they remain in the skin when touched. Opuntia glochids are also the original source of itching powder! It is said that the white glochid variety (O. microdasys) is harmless but personally I have never dared to verify this. If you ever touch an Opuntia by accident, the best way to remove the source of the irritation is with a piece of masking tape.
Asparagus in the house
All the plants mentioned so far are velvety. The pleasant feeling you get when stroking them comes from the hairs that cover them. Plants with shiny leaves may also invite you to touch them, but they usually disappoint because they are not as smooth and soft as they look. However, you can experience a very different kind of tactile sensation when you run your fingers over the lush foliage. I have always found ferns very attractive in this regard. Unfortunately, their fragile fronds are easily damaged and they should be left alone.
Asparagus ferns are easier to stroke, provided that you do not stroke them too deeply. The main stems hide needles, which are not very dangerous, but still annoying. You can also run your fingers through the foliage of almost any plant with lush foliage and have a lot of fun without doing any harm. You can even do them some good by removing dust particles that would otherwise settle on the foliage.
Go ahead! Cuddle up to your houseplants. You won’t regret it!
Oh, I do like the black sage! It is native here, and a few were added to the landscapes. However, some people find them to be too pungent.