How to Grow and Care for Scaredy Cat Plant

Pale blue flower spike with buds opening, round leafed succulent green foliage in background
The scaredy cat plant has attractive violet blue flower spikes and fleshy oval leaves.

Nancy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Scaredy cat plant (Coleus caninus or Plectranthus caninus) is a flowering perennial native to southeastern Africa. A member of the mint family, it emits a strong, unpleasant odor that is thought (though without scientific verification) to repel cats, dogs, and other animals. Despite its unpleasant odor, it is an attractive garden plant, thanks to the grey-green oval leaves and unusually dark violet-blue flower spikes that blossom in late spring through summer. In temperate climates, this fast-growing perennial is often grown as an annual.

Scaredy cat plant is usually planted by seed or from a potted nursery start in the spring after all danger of frost has passed and soil temps are at 60 degrees Fahrenheit or above. It is a fast-growing plant that generally flowers within a few weeks when planted from a nursery start.

Common Name Scaredy cat plant, dogbane, painted nettle
Botanical Name Coleus caninus or Plectranthus caninus
Family Lamiaceae
Plant Type Perennial, annual
Mature Size 1.5-2 ft. tall, 1-2 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, neutral
Bloom Time Spring, summer
Flower Color Violet, blue
Hardiness Zones 10–11 (USDA)
Native Areas Africa

Scaredy Cat Plant Care

This plant thrives in full sun and dry soil. Space plants about two feet apart. Since it gives off an unpleasant scent when you brush against it, plant it away from pathways and other pedestrian areas. While its reputation as a plant that repels animals is not proven, it is known as rabbit- and deer-resistant (as are other members of the mint family), so planting some scaredy cat plants among vulnerable garden specimens is certainly worth a try.

Scaredy cat plant is stocked by large local garden centers, or you can order live plants or seeds from online retailers. For the earliest bloom with seeds, it's best to start them indoors, six to eight weeks before the last frost.

Scaredy cat plant has no notable pest or disease issues.

Oval fleshy green leaves surround stalk with sharp buds.
The fleshy succulent-like leaves of the scaredy cat plant indicate its drought tolerance. squirrelbasket / Flickr / CC BY 2.0
Pale blue flower spike with buds opening, round leafed succulent green foliage in background
The scaredy cat plant has attractive violet blue flower spikes and fleshy oval leaves.

Nancy / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Light

This plant prefers full sun but will tolerate partial sun so long as it gets some hot afternoon sun. Too much shade will make plants leggy and reduce flowering.

Soil

Scaredy cat prefers a dry situation, so plant it in a sunny spot in soil that has good drainage—sandy soils are fine for this plant.

If growing in a container, make sure the drainage is adequate, and use a mixture of traditional potting soil, peat moss, and sand or perlite to ensure the plant's roots don't get waterlogged.

Water

This drought-tolerant plant doesn't need supplemental watering except when summer temperatures rise. Water as you would succulent plants, such as sedums. If there is an unusual prolonged drought situation, a one-inch soaking every two or three weeks is usually enough.

Temperature and Humidity

This plant is reliably hardy in zones 10 and 11 and in zones eight and nine it may survive winters if you mulch around the base of the plant. It has no preference for humidity, but like most mints, it thrives in relatively arid conditions.

Fertilizer

These plants will thrive with a monthly application of a diluted balanced fertilizer during the growing season. In regions where it grows as a perennial, feeding should be withheld in the winter months.

Pruning

To make the plant grow in a fuller, bushier form, pinch back the leaves early in the season, as you would a dahlia or chrysanthemum.

Deadheading spent flowers will help stimulate more blossoms and extend the overall bloom period. Deadheading also prevents the plant from self-seeding in the garden, which can be a problem in warmer regions where the plant is perennial.

Propagating Scaredy Cat Plant

Like other members of the mint family, these plants are among the easiest to propagate by rooting stem cuttings. You can do it at any time during the growing season. Here's how:

  1. Use sharp pruners to snip a three to five-inch stem tip. Remove the leaves from the bottom one-third of the cutting.
  2. Plant the cutting in a small pot filled with standard potting mix blended with sand or perlite. Keep the potting mix moist; in just a few days, roots will develop.
  3. After a few weeks, the rooted cutting can be planted in a garden location—or grown indoors over the winter for planting outdoors the following spring.

In regions where scaredy cat plant is grown as an annual, taking cuttings in the early fall and rooting them indoors is a common way to keep the plants going from year to year. These plants are so easy to propagate that it's possible to simply plant sliced leaf portions in soil and wait for them to root themselves.

These plants sometimes take root at the point where trailing branches touch the soil, and these self-layered rooted branches can be severed from the mother plant, dug up, and transplanted to new garden locations or into pots to overwinter indoors.

How to Grow Scaredy Cat Plant From Seed

Because it is a pure species, Coleus caninus will "come true" if you plant seeds collected from the dried flower heads. Collect the flower heads in the fall, store them in a paper bag until they are fully dry, then crush and rub the petals to extract the seeds.

The seeds can be saved over winter, then sown indoors in seed flats filled with a seed starter mix, six to eight weeks before the last frost. Keep the starter mix moist and warm, in a location with bright indirect light until they germinate and sprout. Once they develop two or more sets of true leaves, the seedlings can be transplanted into individual pots or planted in the garden once all danger of frost has passed.

Because these plants are so easy to propagate from stem or leaf cuttings, sowing seeds is not a common form of propagation.

Potting and Repotting Scaredy Cat Plant

Scaredy cat plant will readily grow in any well-draining pot filled with a porous potting mix, such as a mixture of standard potting soil and perlite or sand. Growing in containers allows you to move the plant around to experiment with its possible animal-repellant qualities. However, this is not a plant that makes a good permanent indoor houseplant due to its unpleasant odor.

Repotting is usually not necessary, as plants are generally discarded after the growing season, and planted afresh each spring as annuals. Should you want to grow it year-round as an outdoor patio plant, prune back the stems and reduce watering in fall. In this case, repotting should be done every two or three years.

Overwintering

In regions where scaredy cat plant is reliably hardy, no special treatment is required for the winter, except to reduce fertilization. In borderline climates, scaredy cat plants sometimes survive winters if covered with mulch for the winter. Otherwise, simply pull the plants from the ground and discard them in the fall after they die back.

If you're overwintering a potted scaredy cat plant indoors, place it near a sunny eastern or southern facing window, and avoid drafty spots. And you'll want to place it in a location where its unpleasant aroma won't be a problem.

How to Get Scaredy Cat Plant to Bloom

This plant blooms readily from late spring through the middle of the summer. Conditions that might encourage more blooming include:

  • Better sun exposure. Without at least six hours of direct sun, these plants will bloom less robustly.
  • More fertilizer. These plants prefer monthly feeding with a diluted balanced fertilizer and may bloom less robustly if they don't get enough nutrients.

Common Problems With Scaredy Cat Plant

There are very few problems with scaredy cat plant. If they are planted in shady conditions, it's common for the stems to become leggy and somewhat sparse. Cutting back the stems regularly can help keep the plant full and bushy.

FAQ
  • Does scaredy cat plant self-seed?

    Like other members of the mint family, scaredy cat plant will self-seed in the garden, but this is rarely a problem except in warm-winter zones where the growing season is long enough for volunteer seedlings to mature into flowering plants. In most regions with winter frost, volunteer seedlings rarely reach flowering maturity in time to continue the cycle, and thus it does not spread rampantly.

  • Does scaredy cat plant repel animals or not?

    There is no scientific proof that this plant's unpleasant odor repels cats, dogs, or other animals that might damage your garden. That said, anecdotal stories suggest that the plant's odor makes it unpalatable to deer, rabbit, and insect pests. Other less pungent aromatic plants that may work to deter cats in the garden include rue, lavender, and rosemary.

  • How bad does scaredy cat plant smell?

    The smell isn't particularly noticeable to humans unless it is touched, or something brushes against it, This action releases the volatile essential oils contained in the leaves. The smell is sometimes likened to dog urine, skunk, or eucalyptus. The odor may linger on fabrics, so it's a good idea to wear disposable or washable garden gloves when handling this plant.

  • How is this plant used in the landscape?

    Scaredy cat plant is used as an annual to fill in empty spots in herbaceous border gardens with long-lasting color. Lack of evidence notwithstanding, many people continue to plant it with the hopes that it will repel cats, dogs, and wild creatures that might dig or feed in the garden.

  • Why does scaredy cat plant have two different botanical names?

    The mint family includes several genera that have seen species reassigned. Coleus, Plectranthus, and Equalabrium all include species that have been reclassified at various times as genetic information is clarified. In 2018, the Plectranthus genus was more narrowly defined, and P. caninus was reclassified as Coleus caninus. However, it's still common to see scaredy cat plants sold under the old botanical name.

Article Sources
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  1. Coleus Genus. South African Biodiversity Institute

  2. How to Keep Frustrating Felines Out of the Garden. Oregon State University

  3. Saving Your Own Seed. North Carolina State Extension.