Early visitors to New Guinea and the Philippines must have marveled over large specimens of chenille plants in their native equatorial habitat. This member of the spurge family is named for the French word for caterpillar, chenille, and will provide textural interest and crimson accents in your sunny flower garden and bouquets.
You might also hear chenille plant referred to by its other common names of monkey tail or red-hot cattail.
Get to Know Chenille Plants
The foliage of the chenille plant is unremarkable, but whoa, those fuzzy red flowers! The anatomy of the flower itself is just a row of pistils, but the fuzzy catkins provide tactile enjoyment for all ages. Flowers can look like plump fuzz balls, eventually turning downright pendulous, with lengths of 18 inches not unheard of.
If you’re fortunate enough to live in a tropical climate, you can expect your mature chenille plant to grow into a shrub that can get eight to fifteen feet tall. The plant will stay much more tame in containers, usually topping out at two to three feet.
Planting Chenille Flowers
Don’t try to grow 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.
Buy nursery plants, or start with fresh cuttings from the previous season’s plants in the spring.
Chenille plant doesn’t try to deny its tropical origins, and it will pout in temperatures below 60 degrees F. A good way to decide when to plant chenille plant is to follow your tomato schedule, and plant your chenille plants outdoors when the weather is favorable for growing tomatoes.
Outdoors, plant chenille plant in full sun for vigorous growth. As a houseplant, place chenille plant 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. 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, and maintain moderate moisture throughout the season.
Chenille Plant Care
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.
Like many fast growers, the chenille plant can get ahead of itself, and start to look straggly as the summer progresses. Furthermore, faded brown tassels look unsightly. Cut the plant back to 12 inches, and you will be rewarded with double the flowers on a compact, multi-branched plant.
Chenille plant is ever blooming, provided you give it the warmth, light, and nutrients it requires.
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.
Garden Design With Chenille Plants
A healthy chenille plant will be the star of your sunny window box or hanging basket. Combine chenille plant 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. Who wouldn’t marvel at the sight of a small tree bearing dozens of red woolly flowers?
To get started, trim all leaves and stems from the bottom two inches of your plant, close to the soil. Once a week, trim all foliage growing on the lowest two inches of the plant until you have the stem length you desire. Support the "trunk" of the plant, which is an 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 Plant Varieties
No matter which chenille plant you favor, all will produce the charming fuzzy catkins characteristic of the plant. Look for these at your full service nursery:
- Alba: The seldom seen white variety of chenille plant
- A. pendula: A dwarf form of chenille plant, growing 3-7 inches tall.
- A. hispida: The common chenille plant species.