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Chenille plants, (Acalypha species) sometimes called Red Hot Cattails, or Strawberry Cattails, are an interesting houseplant or patio plant and can be a garden perennial in zones 8 and above. Children love the bright fuzzy flowers. When they are happy the plants will bloom almost continuously.
There are two species of Acalypha common in cultivation and several cultivars of those species. Another species A. reptans, commonly referred to as dwarf Chenille plant is sometimes offered. Acalypha hispida and Acalypha pendula are sometimes mislabeled and when young the species can be hard to tell apart. A. hispida is a larger plant, in tropical climates it makes a large shrub. The growth is more upright. A. pendula is a smaller, more flattened plant and is the plant often seen in hanging baskets although it too gets quite large in warm climates.
Acalypha hispida alba marginata may not be truly new but it is seldom offered on the market and considered rare. This Chenille plant has yellow to cream catkin flowers and the leaves are variegated with white. It’s a larger shrub form of Chenille plant but pretty in baskets and containers when young.
It’s interesting that when looking up the natural habitat of Chenille plants I found several conflicting answers for both species. They are not native to North America but might be native to Cuba, the South Pacific Islands, New Guinea, the Philippines, Java and the Malay Archipelago to name a few places cited. Chenille plants have naturalized in parts of Mexico.
Chenille plants have nice looking, evergreen foliage. The leaves are oval or heart shaped with serrated edges. There is at least one cultivar with variegated foliage but the plants aren’t usually grown for their foliage. Most plants kept as houseplants will be in hanging baskets, A. hispida is sometimes trained into a standard, a bare trunk with a weeping top. They could be put in containers as a “spiller.”
In warm climates where they are planted in the ground Chenille plants become shrubs or groundcovers depending on species. At the edge of the hardiness range (reported to be zone 8b if mulched) they may die back to the ground each winter.
Chenille plant flowers are actually clusters of tiny flowers along a stem. They appear fuzzy or puffy like a Cat’s tail or maybe a thick pipe cleaner. They are named for a thick, soft, puffy material used in clothing. They can be a 2 inches long or less to a foot long. A. pendula tends to have fatter but shorter flowers than A. hispida. The flowers are pendulous or drooping.
The color of chenille flowers is sometimes described as hot pink rather than red, and there is a natural range of color from purplish red to paler pink, although the most commonly encountered color would be described as red. There are cultivars with white and cream flowers. (See the new plant article below.)
I have seen hummingbirds hover around the red flowers of Chenille plant but they don’t seem to feed on them. Bees and butterflies occasionally visit flowers but they aren’t a big attractant for them.
Chenille plants are dioecious, that is the male and female flowers are on separate plants. Since only the female plant has the fuzzy red Cat’s Tails nurseries reproduce the plant from cuttings, all the cuttings from a female plant will also be female, and male plants are not sold. Therefore you shouldn’t get any seeds from your Chenille plant. Some people report they have had seed develop but the seed is always infertile.
Growing Chenille plants as houseplants
Because of their tropical origins Chenille plants like warm, humid conditions. To keep them blooming they need to be kept above 60 degrees F. Indoors they need very bright light to bloom well, when moved outside in the summer, which they love, they need to be in what is known as bright shade, or partial shade and not in direct sun.
Any good houseplant potting medium will work well for Chenille plants. They need to be kept moist, but not waterlogged. Pots should drain well. If the humidity in the home is low Chenille plants need to be misted or given showers once in a while.
To keep them blooming inside Chenille plants need regular fertilization as well as bright light and humidity. Use water soluble fertilizer for blooming plants as the label directs for houseplants about once a week. Keep old flowers that are starting to brown cut off to encourage bloom.
Indoors Chenille plants in low humidity tend to get spider mites, scale, mealy bugs and aphids. To avoid having to use pesticides make sure your Chenille plant is kept moist and in humid conditions. Keeping the plant in a bathroom near a shower or above the kitchen sink might help. You can use trays of rocks and water beneath plants or a room humidifier also.
All parts of the plant are considered toxic if ingested. The sap from broken branches can cause skin irritation. Children can touch the catkins carefully but keep them out of mouths and away from pets.
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