The chenlille plant (Acalypha hispida), a member of the spurge family, is named for the French word for caterpillar. Its crimson accents can provide textural interest to a sunny flower garden or a homegrown bouquet. The genus acalypha is one of the members of the Euphorbiaceae family, which is a treasure trove of ornamental plants for the flower gardener; think poinsettia, croton, and castor bean, among others.
The foliage of the chenille plant is unremarkable; the real stars are its fuzzy red flowers. The anatomy of the flower itself is just a row of pistils, but the fuzzy catkins formed from the flowers provide visual and tactile enjoyment for all ages. The catkins can look like plump fuzz balls, eventually turning downright pendulous, with lengths of 18 inches not unheard of. Outside of tropical zones, chenille plants are commonly grown in containers that can be brought indoors for winter. They can also be grown year-round as houseplants. They are perennial in zones 9 and 10, where they are best planted in spring.
|Botanical Name||Acalypha hispida|
|Common Name||Chenille flower, monkey tail, red-hot cat tail|
|Plant Type||Evergreen plant; seasonal annual and/or houseplant|
|Mature Size||8 to 15 feet tall in tropical climates; in containers, 2 to 3 feet tall and 1 foot wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun outdoors; bright light indoors|
|Soil Type||Sand, clay, loam|
|Soil pH||5 to 7.5|
|Hardiness Zones||9, 10|
|Native Area||The Philippines and New Guinea|
How to Grow Chenille Plants
A healthy chenille plant will be the star of your sunny window box or hanging basket. Combine chenille plants with complementary flowers that appreciate the same growing conditions, such as begonias, petunias, or New Guinea impatiens.
If you desire an upright specimen, you can train the chenille plant as a standard. To get started, trim all leaves and stems from the bottom 2 inches of your plant, close to the soil. Once a week, trim all foliage growing on the lowest 2 inches of the plant until you have the stem length you desire. Support the "trunk" (the exposed stem) with a stake and small soft ties. Over time, the stem will become tough and woody like a real trunk. You will need to continue to trim foliage away from the trunk weekly to prevent the plant from reverting to its trailing form.
Chenille plants grow best in full sun to partial shade. Outdoors, plant chenille in full sun for vigorous growth. As a houseplant, place it in a south-facing window where it will get a high level of light.
You can plant chenille plants in a range of soils, including sand, clay, and loam, but this flower isn’t suited to xeriscapes or seaside gardens, as it is only moderately drought-resistant and is not salt-tolerant. Chenille plants can adapt to a range of soil pH values between 5.0 and 7.5.
Keep your plants consistently moist as they establish. Maintain moderate moisture throughout the season.
Temperature and Humidity
A chenille plant doesn’t try to deny its tropical origins, and it will pout in temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. A good way to decide when to plant your chenille plant is to follow your tomato schedule, and plant your chenille plants outdoors when the weather is favorable for growing tomatoes.
Spider mites on the prowl will make a meal of your chenille plant in July and August if conditions are dry or dusty. Mist the plant daily to create an inhospitable environment for these sucking pests. If whiteflies scatter during these misting sessions, use a hand vacuum to reduce the population of these disease-carrying insects.
As a fast-growing plant, the chenille plant needs regular fertilizing to support its flowering and development. The standard every other week feeding that supports most showy annuals is not enough: feed your chenille plant a half-strength balanced flower fertilizer every week for the best results. If the plant starts to develop yellow leaves, supplement the fertilizer with a shovelful of manure that you cultivate into the soil.
Propagating Chenille Plants
Don’t try to grow a chenille plant from seed you’ve saved yourself. As a dioecious plant, each plant will grow only male or female flowers, and the male flowers are inconspicuous; only the females have the bright red catkins. Buy nursery plants, or start with fresh cuttings from the previous season’s plants in the spring. To grow new plants from cuttings, choose 4- to 6-inch-long stems that have two or more leaves. Apply rooting hormone and bottom heat, and grow the roots in rooting medium.
Varieties of Chenille Plants
No matter which chenille plant you favor, all females will produce the charming fuzzy catkins characteristic of the plant. Look for these at your full-service nursery:
- Acalypha hispida 'Alba': A seldom seen white variety of chenille plant, with white catkins; also called white cat tail
- A. hispida 'White-Margined': Creamy white catkins; white margins on mature leaves
- A. pendula: A dwarf form of chenille plant, growing 3 to 7 inches tall
Like many fast growers, the chenille plant can get ahead of itself and start to look straggly as the summer progresses. The faded brown tassels look unsightly. Cut the plant back to 12 inches. You will be rewarded with double the flowers on a compact, multi-branched plant. A chenille plant can be everblooming, provided you give it the warmth, light, and nutrients it requires.