The scaredy cat plant, also known by the scientific name Plectranthus caninus, as well as Coleus caninus, is a member of the mint family Lamiaceae, which also includes dead nettle and sage plants. It is native to southern and eastern Africa, and the Indian peninsula.
Although some sources state it was specially bred in Germany for the purpose of deterring cats, this appears to be false. It does, however, get its unusual common name from its reputation for repelling both cats and dogs with its pungent odor. It is also sometimes known as "dogs be gone" and also as painted nettle.
It's a popular annual "filler" plant for herbaceous borders in England, as it also repels foxes (who like to prowl in gardens), and is known by the colorful moniker "piss off plant." The smell isn't particularly noticeable to humans unless it is touched, or animals brush against it. These action releases the volatile essential oils contained in the leaves. The smell has been compared to dog urine, skunk, and some gardeners find it unpleasant, so it's important to avoid touching it more than absolutely necessary if you want to avoid that olfactory experience. Also, the odor may linger on fabric so wear disposable or washable garden gloves when handling it. There are other less pungent aromatic plants that may also work to deter cats in the garden, including rue, lavender and rosemary.
If you have a problem with cats going into your flower beds as if they're a big outdoor litter box, or dogs who like to dig holes among your flowers, this plant may help deter them, but there's no definitive evidence it works across the board. However, many gardeners have shared anecdotal accounts that support this plant's usefulness and they regularly use it at strategic parts of their gardens to keep unwanted animals out in a way that is safe and non-toxic.
The scaredy cat plant has grey-green oval leaves and pale to dark violet-blue flower spikes. The leaves are fleshy, similar to a succulent, and covered in tiny hairs. This species is also deer and rabbit resistant, but its flowers are attractive to pollinators. It's a multi-purpose plant with many benefits and also very pretty and long-flowering.
|Scientific Name||Plectranthus caninus or Coleus caninus|
|Common Name||Scaredy Cat Plant, Painted Nettle, Dogbane|
|Plant Type||Tender perennial, annual|
|Mature Size||Up to 24 inches|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun|
|Soil Type||Prefers dry soil|
|Soil pH||Slightly acid to neutral|
|Bloom Time||Late spring|
|Flower Color||Violet, blue|
|Hardiness Zones||USDA 8 or above|
|Native Areas||Africa, India|
|Toxicity||Seeds, other plant parts toxic if ingested|
Scaredy Cat Plant Care
This plant is quite easy to grow as an annual, thrives in full sun and is very drought-tolerant. Your local plant nursery may carry this in spring or should be able to order it for you.
This plant prefers full sun, but will probably do okay with partial sun if it is mainly afternoon sun, which is hotter.
The scaredy cat prefers a dry soil situation, so plant it in a sunny spot with plenty of drainage.
If growing in a container, make sure the drainage is adequate, and use a good mix of potting soil, peat moss and perlite to ensure the plant's roots don't get waterlogged.
This drought-tolerant plant won't usually need any supplemental watering, but when summer temperatures get hot it will benefit from a regular amount of water, such as you might give other succulent-adjacent plants such as sedums. If there is an unusual prolonged drought situation, keep an eye on it so it doesn't get dried out completely.
Temperature and Humidity
This plant is only truly perennial in Zones above 10b, but behaves as a tender perennial in Zones 8-9.
In some cases, it may need winter protection as it is very sensitive to cold temperatures. Mulching around the base will help protect the roots in winter, but it is unlikely to survive freezing temperatures.
It grows fairly well in warmer US regions like southern California, Nevada and southern Florida. You may have luck overwintering it indoors.
To make the leaves grow out in a fuller, bushier form, pinch back the leaves early in the season, as you would a dahlia or crysanthemum.
Propagating Scaredy Cat Plants
It's more practical to get a nursery-raised plant, as opposed to trying to grow from seed, especially if you want to use this as an annual in a colder growing zone. It can be grown in containers very easily.
If you're overwintering your scaredy cat plant indoors, place near a sunny eastern or southern facing window, and avoid drafty spots.