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by Ruby Weinberg

The Cat-tails Plant is Irresistible

Cats are wonderful companions that vary considerably in appearance. But did you know that some have rosy-pink tails? Don’t expect these pussies to meow nor do they need to be fed twice a day or allowed to sleep on our beds.

The species that I love almost as much as pussycats grew into fat and pendulous container plants in less than a year. It’s hard not to stroke their many fuzzy 3-6-inch long rose-colored flowers or “tails” which are as soft as the appendage on a kitten. Given the right home, blooms will appear in both summer and winter.

The botanical nomenclature of this species is Acalypha pendula. Some gardeners call them “chenille” plants; others prefer the name “firetails.” They are sometimes listed under A. repens or reptans, but pendula (I believe) is the correct name. Apparently, there is also a white-tailed form although I have yet to see one.

The arrival of autumn means that all too many of our potted outdoor flowering plants (which are actually annuals) must be tossed onto the compost heap. However, if you enjoy growing container plants that also flower and thrive indoors in winter, look to many that are native to year-round warm climates. A. pendula is a native of Cuba.

In purchasing this beauty, be sure that it is correctly labeled. Even in a small container, the plant should exhibit a weeping habit. Many species of acalypha are planted outdoors in tropical or sub-tropical gardens; the most frequently grown is probably Acalypha hispida. This, and several other species that also sport cat-tails, eventually become tall shrubs or vines, not what most home-owners in the mid-Atlantic region can handle in a container. Happily, the pendula cat-tail grows only to a height of 8-10 inches with stems that carry small, trailing foliage. Because of this low habit, it is sometimes planted in tropical gardens as a ground cover. But as a potted plant here in the north, this fat-cat quickly fills a broad, rather than deep, container. It excels as a hanging basket.

Outdoors, a sunny or slightly shady location should be equally successful. Don’t let the plants ever dry out completely. On the other hand, don’t keep them in a constant soggy state.

In only one garden growing season, a small pot of A. pendula can reward you by filling out a 10, 12 or l4-inch wide container with cascading stems and many pink cat-tails.

When autumn arrives, the root ball will continue to expand, but if you plan on bringing it indoors and feel that when it comes to size, enough is enough, scrape some of the excess soil away, trim off some of the longest, non-flowering stems, and repot the plant in a pot that suits you best. Up-pot, of course, if you have the desire and the room for a larger container using a potting soil that is a nice sandy loam.

A moderate winter temperature in a greenhouse would be perfect for these plants, but cat-tails can also be grown and flowered indoors in a light garden or no more than 2 feet from a sunny window. A day time temperature of about 60 degrees is perfect; a slow release fertilizer should keep them in bloom almost all winter. In less than perfect conditions, cat-tails may still bloom somewhat but each flower may not grow longer than 2-3 inches.

Those who enjoy propagating plants will bless their friend with an A. pendula specimen who willingly offers you a cutting. In autumn, which is best, take a 2-3-inch stem with a heel attached and root it in perlite under mist or in a clear, humidity trapped container. Bottom heat will speed a process that should take no longer than 10-14 days. After rooting, transfer it to a small container. There is always a special satisfaction in growing any plant successfully from a cutting that looks like nothing more than a pruning discard.

Like all kittens, given the right home, A. pendula quickly develops into a compact, full-bodied specimen…just not the kind that you might invite onto your bed.

Acalypha pendula Sources

Many botanical gardens with greenhouse displays grow acalypha as semi-permanent plants and may even sell them in their plant shops. Some vendors who grow them also have visiting hours to their facilities. To purchase a plant through the mail, order no later than the end of October. Some may be near your home or at a place that you plan to visit.
Avant Gardens: www.avantgardensne.com/
Glasshouse Works: www.Glasshouse Works.com
(They call their plants A. repens ‘Strawberry Festival’)
Kartuz Growers: www.kartuz.com/
Logees Tropical Plants: www.logees.com
Richard Lyons Nursery, Inc.: www.rarefloweringtrees.com
Miami, FL visits only; no mail order
Plant Delights Nursery: www.plantdelights.com

*All photos by Martin Weinberg

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published September 09, 2009

Photos to enlarge

Chenille plant in terra cotta

3 Cat-tail littermates, Acaylpha pendula

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